If you were asked to create a device for toasting bread, chances are you’d go for something simple: a couple of iron plates, perhaps, that could be heated over a fire. Your effort might not win any awards, but you’d have a piece of toast at the end of it. Thomas Thwaites, a 30-year-old Londoner who holds a master’s in design from the Royal College of Art, opted for a different approach. A few years ago, he single-handedly built a pop-up toaster that has steadfastly refused to toast, is ghastly looking, and would likely rank among the most dangerous kitchen appliances ever created--if, that is, its maker dared to plug it in.
To be fair, Thwaites didn’t set out to make toast when he began building his device; he set out to make a point. The idea was to reverse-engineer the cheapest toaster he could find. He would take the thing apart, fiddle with its constituent parts, then try to build a toaster of his own, obtaining and refining each of the requisite raw materials, all without using modern technology. “It’s that fantasy 14-year-old boys have,” he says. “What if I found myself marooned on a strange planet? What if the world came to an end? Would I be able to survive?” His experiment is documented in a new book: “The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch.”
Building an electric appliance from scratch, it turns out, is trickier than it sounds. After nine months of toil, during which he abandoned his pledge to avoid using technology, Thwaites produced a “bread warmer” that cost nearly $2,000 to make--250 times more than the toaster he’d originally dismantled (it’s unclear whether this figure includes the microwave oven he destroyed trying to smelt iron). He also ended up producing a funny and thoughtful book. But that won’t mop up a plate of runny eggs--and perhaps this, in a roundabout way, is the point.
The German philosopher Heidegger speculated that we never really come to grips with what a hammer is until we encounter one with a broken handle. Similarly, the artist Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered tea cup compelled us to take a fresh look at an object so familiar that we hardly know it’s there. Thwaites’s bumbling attempts to build a toaster, meanwhile, could be seen as a way to open our eyes to the astonishing technological complexity we apply to the simplest of tasks, and the rampant consumerism this entails.
Thwaites, though, insists that his project’s failure did not sit well with him. “I genuinely thought that making a toaster would not be that hard,” he says. “I was intending to make capacitors, or at least a spring. You’d think I’d be able to make a bloody spring.” He did, at least, manage to make a splash. One reviewer called his book “mythic in scope”; the toaster itself now sits beside George Stephenson’s steam locomotive at London’s Science Museum. “I was worried at the time,” he says. “I’d sit there and think, ‘How am I going to get a job on the back of a bad toaster?’”
Thwaites is saying all this by phone from Devon, on England’s south coast. He’s there filming a documentary for Channel 4, he explains, which has commissioned him to build a bunch of other everyday objects from scratch--a light bulb, a pair of sneakers, a hover mower. The show could prove to be a springboard to a kind of celebrity. But Thwaites seems unmoved by this prospect. He’s more excited that Channel 4 wants him to build another toaster. “This one,” he says, “will work.”
Chris Wright is a writer living in Spain.