Toast is hardly a starting point for a theory of late-day capitalism and consumption. Unless that toast is in the hands of Thomas Thwaites, that is. A British conceptual designer with a degree in macroeconomics, he has turned toast into a philosophical inquiry. In itself the food is a British birthright, and he set out inspired by a quote from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.” Thwaites put that idea to the test and in grad school decided to take the cheapest toaster he could buy at Argos (kind of like a British Best Buy but not nearly as fancy, maybe more like Sears) to try and make the machine himself. This included mining ore, smelting ore, calling BP to see if he could visit an oil rig for a jug of petroleum and then trying to make plastic from potatoes.
The result was the world’s most expensive toaster at $1,860.93 (not including labor). He took the 404 individual parts of his toaster apart, including the 42 individual copper wires entwined to make the power lead and ended up with a ghost toaster. As if hinting in some Platonic sense at what it might do, the device looks hauntingly like the original but is utterly unable to perform its intended task. The story of making the toaster is comic and quixotic not to mention a study in what cheap things (the original was around five bucks) actually cost. He asks questions about where things come from and where they (and us along with them) are going. All of it is recorded in his book The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) which also made NPR’s list of best books for 2011 and netted Thwaites a spot on The Colbert Report as well as a TED Talk. The toaster is also now spawning a TV series for Britain’s Channel 4 where Thwaites makes another attempt at making a toaster from scratch as well as trying his hand at sneakers and light bulbs.
The Rumpus: Why remake something so cheap and prevalent?
Thomas Thwaites: It’s that common feeling of wondering where does everything come from. One of the reasons I was doing the project was to satisfy that question for myself, and obviously there is that other nagging feeling of the guilt we have when we buy things we don’t always need or when we don’t want to buy things but are told to buy stuff to keep the economy going and that the economy needs to grow, and if it shrinks it’s a disaster and all this stuff, so it was just a conundrum I wanted to solve or, at least, explore.
Rumpus: What was particularly inspiring in to you in the Hitchhikers Guide – and toast?
Thwaites: Like many people, many males my age, I should say, I read it as a teenager, and it’s both epic and mundane at the same time. The same can be said for what I tried to do. I tried to connect different scales of things and find the humor in that as well, and it’s true the Adams’ quote, no toast got made, not yet at least, but I’m still working on it.
Rumpus: The toaster was a school project, but how did you stumble on the idea of an Argos toaster? Or into Argos itself for that matter? It’s a weird place.
Thwaites: There’s an Argos on High Street Kensington near college (The Royal College of Art which is in the tony ‘hood of Kensington and Chelsea). Argos is pretty bizarre. It’s sort of like Walmart. It’s consumerism at its rawest, only there’s nothing on the shelves. You just go in and look through these laminated catalogues and write down the number of the thing you want and then you hand in the number and the sales clerk types it in, and then it just emerges from the conveyor belt at the back. Obviously in the back they have this big nondescript warehouse. It’s like cutting costs to the absolute minimum, so you don’t have to display anything. And, I had – still have, in fact – this fantasy of climbing over the counter and climbing up the conveyor belt and going in the warehouse and then following the toaster back to the source and hitching a ride on the delivery truck and on its return journey….
The toaster I bought was basically just the cheapest toaster I could find, and one of the reasons why is this very cut-down mode of retail.
Rumpus: So once you had it in pieces, what happened? Tell me about your process with it.
Thwaites: I wanted to go from digging something out of the ground and turning it into components for the toaster and just following that process from the very beginning to the end, and once I decided which materials I was going to focus on out of the 100 or so that I guestimated were in the Argos Toaster I could actually start trying to find and mine them.
Rumpus: So, first was iron?
Thwaites: You can’t go buy iron ore in, like, Argos, so I looked online for somewhere I could get the ore, which was also within a reasonable distance of London, and I found this place in the Forest of Dean. I phoned up, kind of cold calling: “Can I come and mine some iron ore?” The guy Ray just said, “okay, sure,” and I went there the next day. I dragged my friend Simon along and took an empty suitcase with me. Like you do if you want to transport iron ore around. That sort of seemed to make sense-ish. The place was a tourist attraction, and it was interesting because here was this grizzled former miner who is now a tour guide for this mining museum and me, this sort of naïve, art school, I don’t know, idiot, perhaps? So, I felt a bit stupid pleading with him to let me mine some ore, but then I took it home in the suitcase and smelted it.
Rumpus: Yeah, in a trashcan, right? Why? Or more to the point, how?
Thwaites: Well, I’ve got this suitcase of rock and have to figure out how do I make it into metal, and then how do I build a furnace? I spent a long time going back and forth with the health and safety officer at college, and even though it’s not very dangerous, I’m sure something about smelting ore in a car-park in London made it seem a bit more dangerous than it was. I built this furnace out of a dustbin and an antique chimney pot I’d taken from my mom’s garden and a leaf blower. Only it didn’t work.
Rumpus: So what happened with this flaming trashcan and leaf blower and iron oxide?
Thwaites: For a few days I did think I’d actually done it, and I was basically a genius at smelting iron. But I used the wrong fuel. Because modern furnaces use coke, I assumed coke was better somehow so that was what I used. It’s not used nowadays because it’s a better fuel, but because it’s cheaper. Also smelting is more art than science. You have to judge the temperature and the gas mixture from the color of the flame. When it didn’t work, I was pretty mopey for a few days. I mean, the first thing I tried didn’t even work.
Next, I looked online for other ways to smelt iron. I’d melted my furnace, and getting the health and safety guy to agree to my doing it again was never going to happen. I’d used up a lot of goodwill from the foundry people at college, so I found instead this patent for microwave smelting or industrial furnaces that use microwaves. I knew my mum had a microwave, and I went over to her house and sort of borrowed it one day.
Rumpus: Sort of borrowed it? Does she use that microwave anymore?
Thwaites: Well, yeah, I got her another one. I basically destroyed her microwave.
Rumpus: Which is funny because it costs more than the toaster. Did you buy the second one from Argos?
Thwaites: No, actually I got it secondhand from the Red Cross at a charity shop.
Rumpus: How did it work? I can fix a cup of tea in microwave for a minute and no iron comes out.
Thwaites: Yeah, it just so happens that iron oxide, iron ore basically, is a fantastic absorber of microwaves. Do you ever have a particular cup or bowl where you put it in a microwave and it becomes insanely hot? Some glazes have iron oxide in them, so I’ve had cups where I’ve burned myself when it comes out, but the liquid inside isn’t hot. The cup has absorbed all the heat. Similarly, you put a lump of iron oxide in a microwave and insulate your lump so it doesn’t lose heat and you keep pumping energy into it for 30-45 minutes, and the ore will just get hotter and hotter and hotter. Then, if you also have some carbon in at the same time – and for that I used my mum’s ramekins – you turn your iron oxide into iron. Actually she was more cross about the ramekins than the microwave.
Rumpus: So how hot are we talking about here with the microwave?
Thwaites: At least 1200 degrees Celsius. Iron oxide / iron ore has to get to that temperature. To do that though you have to insulate the inside of the microwave in part to keep it at that temperature, but also if you didn’t insulate it, the whole inside of the microwave would melt.
Rumpus: Once you turned rock into metal, how did you get it into the shape you wanted?
Thwaites: I borrowed an anvil and heated these bits of iron basically in the same way a blacksmith would. I beat it out into long strips, heating and bending them into a very rough toaster frame.
Rumpus: What was the hardest part of the toaster to make? Or collect?
Thwaites: The wires. I had to make copper wire and nickel copper alloy for the heating element. My source material for the copper was very impure. That’s fine if it’s in a lump, but I was rolling it through this wire-making machine in the jewelry department at college. Obviously they’re used to rolling out gold, but if you roll out an impure plug of metal, as it gets thinner and thinner any cracks in the metal become more and more important. As it gets thinner and thinner, the cracks start to spread, so you roll it through and try to file out these cracks and then roll it through and file, roll and file. It just took ages to make.
Rumpus: Iron and copper, they’re metals; they’re elemental but plastic? That’s tricky. With most materials you were going back to like the Iron or Bronze Age.
Thwaites: Yeah, the plastic age only got started recently because it requires this huge infrastructure to make plastic from crude oil. I learned this when I tried to do it myself. I had to get hold of some crude and so phoned up BP, which didn’t go anywhere. They thought it was a joke. Since, I have gotten hold of some crude oil. I went down to this little oil field in Dorset and have refined the crude using fractional distillation but still there is this problem. Crude oil is this mixture of hydrocarbons, and separating the mixture is really, really hard. I’m going to continue to try to make plastic, but I realized I would also need this other catalyst. I’m still thinking about how I might be able to do it but it goes back to the pressure cooker and balloons of flammable gas so I haven’t quite worked it out yet. This is for the TV program, so I can give it another go
Rumpus: For the toaster you also tried to turn potatoes into plastic. How did – or does – that work?
Thwaites: There’s lots of ways of making plastic and one of them happens to be oil, but you can make it from sugarcane and other materials. I went to a conference where this guy was using bacteria to make plastic from sewage. The bacteria digest the sewage to produce a type of plastic that they can harvest and injection mold into whatever shape you want. And, you can use potato starch, but again the chemistry is quite difficult. You need additives to make sure this starch-based plastic doesn’t crack, and I didn’t have them. My starch plastic was all right in small bits but not on a toaster case.
Rumpus: So, then you said uncle and gave up and went to the dump?
Thwaites: It was quite tempting. Everyday I’d say, “How can I make plastic, how can I make plastic?” And going home, I’d pass these piles of plastic, trash, that had been discarded, and look at them longingly. It was also a good opportunity to start thinking about the other end of the spectrum. Here I’d been thinking and working with mining stuff and taking it out of the ground, but then it will go back into the ground as landfill, so I wanted to focus on the other end of the lifecycle. I mean this stuff is sucked out as oil, turned into plastic, then sits on your desk for a couple years, and then where does it go? It goes back into landfill or recycling centers, which is just down-cycling.
Rumpus: I know this one didn’t make toast, but are you worried about making another for TV and what will happen?
Thwaites: Yeah, I’m slightly worried. There is one key piece of apparatus that I didn’t have when I first plugged in my toaster. That’s a variac, which lets you gradually turn up the power you’re feeding to the toaster, so rather than plugging it in and hoping that the power will make the element glow red hot without becoming white hot and melting itself, you can slowly increase the power until you’re putting just the right amount through the heating element wire. Which I’m hoping will make it work the second time round. On TV.
Rumpus: The first time you were on stage, and how did it feel when it didn’t work? You were at a conference, right?
Thwaites: Yeah, but because it was an art/design project the goal wasn’t really to make toast. In a way there’s something more poetic about not even being able to make a toaster, like Arthur Dent was right, and it was nice to go out in a blaze of glory.
Rumpus: But there was no blaze just glory? There was no fire, and you didn’t electrocute yourself or anyone else.
Thwaites: But it was dramatic in that it flashed. I could feel the heat on my face for a brief moment.
Rumpus: Do you eat toast now? Do you even like toast?
Thwaites: Yeah, I do. I still like toast. I’ve got back into it after a period of going off toast and toasters, and I’ve rediscovered a love for toast.
Rumpus: And what do you like on it?
Thwaites: Just butter actually, just plain.
Rumpus: What kind of toaster do you have?
Thwaites: I have an Argos Value Range Toaster as a bit of nod to the project. I had to buy a few for various reasons, so I put one back together and use it now.
Rumpus: What are you working on other than the TV series?
Thwaites: I’m doing this project in Germany on the home of the future and what will be in it. It all continues from the toaster project. The toaster is about how can we continue this cycle of purchasing more and more stuff and replacing stuff. Maybe we can and maybe we can’t, but the home of the future will look at what will we change and how will that change how we live? So I’ve gone from the Iron Age and smelting to the home of the future via plastic. Arthur Dent would like that continuum because it’s going from one to the other and somehow encompasses the whole history and future of human civilization.