Look on this toaster, ye mighty, and despair!

25th July, 2009

The electric toaster seems a humble thing. It was invented in 1893, not long after the light bulb and long before the microchip and the laser. This century-old technology is now a household staple, and reliable, efficient toasters are available for a few pounds. Nevertheless, Thomas Thwaites, a postgraduate design student at the Royal College of Arts in London, discovered just what an astonishing achievement the toaster is when he embarked on what he called “The Toaster Project”. Quite simply, Thwaites wanted to build a toaster from scratch.

The difficulty of the task began to become clear. To obtain the iron ore, Thwaites had to travel to a former mine in Wales that now serves as a museum. His first attempt to smelt the iron using 15th-century technology failed dismally. His second attempt was something of a cheat, using a recently patented smelting method and a microwave oven – the microwave oven was a casualty of the process – to produce a coin-size lump of iron.

Further short cuts were to follow. Plastic comes from oil, but despite launching a charm offensive against BP, he never did make it out to an oil rig. His attempts to make plastic from potato starch were foiled by hungry snails. He settled for scavenging plastic from a local dump, melting it and moulding it into a toaster casing.

Copper he obtained via electrolysis from the polluted water of an old mine in Anglesey. Nickel was even harder; he cheated and bought some commemorative coins, melting them with an oxyacetylene torch. These compromises were inevitable. “I realised that if you started absolutely from scratch, you could easily spend your life making a toaster,” he explained to me.

An ordinary toaster has more than 400 components and sub-components, made from nearly 100 different materials. Thwaites’s home-made toaster is a simpler affair, using just iron, copper, plastic, nickel and mica, a ceramic. It looks more like a toaster-shaped birthday cake than a real toaster, its coating dripping and oozing like icing gone wrong. “It warms bread when I plug it into a battery,” he says, brightly. “But I’m not sure what will happen if I plug it into the mains.”

What should we make of the Toaster Project? Free-market fans point out the wonderful way in which, for no effort and very little money, we can buy a toaster and enjoy the global efforts of an uncounted workforce, and the accumulated knowledge of the centuries that the toaster embodies. The more churlish among them have grumbled that Leonard Read made such a point in an elegant 1958 essay, “I, Pencil”.

Anti-globalisation types fret about the vast and impersonal industrial forces that have been mobilised beyond our vision, leaving us ignorant of any harmful effects on the planet or the poor, and impotent to do anything about them.

Both sides have a point. The modern market economy is mind-bogglingly complex, producing billions of products, many vastly more complex than a toaster. The complexity of the society we have created for ourselves surrounds us so completely that, instead of being dizzied, we tend to take it for granted.

Yet as we celebrate our good fortune to be born at a time of such astonishing material wealth, the toaster should give us pause for thought. It is a symbol of the sophistication of our world, but also a symbol of the obstacles that lie in wait for those who want to change it. Whether attempting to deal with climate change, social deprivation, economic development or healthcare, improving faults in such a complex system is a task best approached with humility.

Also published at ft.com.

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