Thomas Thwaites is a student at the Royal College of Art in London with an interesting project: he is trying to build a toaster. "from scratch - beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that Argos sells for only £3.99. A toaster. "
It evidently started with a quote from Douglas Adams in Mostly Harmless: "Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it."
But this is not easy:
After some research I have determined that I will need the following materials to make a toaster. Copper, to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires. Iron to make the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast. Nickel to make the heating element. Mica (a mineral a bit like slate) around which the heating element is wound, and of course plastic for the plug and cord insulation, and for the all important sleek looking casing.
What is the point?
The practical aspects of the project are rather a lot of fun. They also serve as a vehicle through which theoretical issues can be raised and investigated. Commercial extraction and processing of the necessary materials happens on a scale that is difficult to resolve into the domestic toaster.
The contrast in scale between between consumer products we use in the home and the industry that produces them is I think absurd – massive industrial activity devoted to making objects which enable us, the consumer, to toast bread more efficiently. These items betray no trace of their providence.
Libertarian writer Radley Balko compares it to a classic Libertarian essay about the complexity and ingenuity involved in the manufacture of something so simple as a pencil:
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding!
-Showing the pencil as an example of the superior intelligence of man and industry to create great things. Thomas Thwaites was not amused and sent a strong reply. He probably doesn't like the headline at Freakonomics, either: It Takes a Free Market to Build a Toaster
Most of us probably are closer to the ham sandwich than the toaster these days; most of us no longer have many of the skills needed for fix, let alone build a toaster. And the manufacturers don't make it easy for us, either, buy designing for low cost rather than repairability.
The Toaster Project is a bit of a wakeup call, a lesson in how complex the simplest looking things really are. More at Thomas Thwaites website