How Do You Build A Toaster ... From Scratch?

Sep 12, 2014
Originally published on June 12, 2015 9:01 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode From Curiosity To Discovery.

About Thomas Thwaites' TED Talk

Designer Thomas Thwaites explains what compelled him to build a toaster, literally from the ground up.

About Thomas Thwaites

Designer Thomas Thwaites works on projects that look deeply at the science behind technology, such as his Toaster Project, where he set out to build his own toaster from scratch, and Policing Genes, a thought experiment around amateur genetics. He's also working on a project investigating counterfactual histories in science, supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show - From Curiosity To Discovery - stories from dreamers, tinkerers, scientists and, yes, filmmakers about the source of curiosity and how it drives the things they do. Later in the show, James Cameron returns with his journey from filmmaker to explorer and back. But first...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY")

STEPHEN FRY: (As The Guide) This is the story of "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy."

RAZ: This is from the BBC adaptation of the series "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" by Douglas Adams. And deep inside one of the chapters of one of the books in the series, there's a quote.

THOMAS THWAITES: I guess it's not just the quote; it's the kind of situation the quote describes.

RAZ: This is Thomas Twaites.

THWAITES: I'm a designer.

RAZ: And Thomas got kind of obsessed with this one quote a few years ago. It's at a point in the book where the main character, Arthur Dent...

THWAITES: This mundane, normal kind of, you know, guy from South London, like me, finds himself alone on a kind of planet and on the other side of the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY")

FRY: (As The Guide) He had been extremely chastened to realize that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and Armagnac, he didn't, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn't do it. Left to his own devices, he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich, and that was it.

RAZ: And when you read that quote, "he couldn't build a toaster," that just stuck in your mind?

THWAITES: Yeah, and I just started thinking, God, you know, it's just so mind-bogglingly complex. I mean, I don't know. I'm just looking around the studio, this BBC studio in London...

RAZ: Yeah.

THWAITES: ...And it's all kind of glass, steel, plastic, you know. Oh, somebody's pointing at something. Don't fiddle with the...

THWAITES: Oh, what?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wood.

THWAITES: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wood.

THWAITES: Oh, wood. (Laughter).

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah.

THWAITES: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: There's wood.

THWAITES: OK. (Laughter).

RAZ: There is wood in there, yeah.

THWAITES: There's one small piece of wood, but it's plywood. And so that has been sliced and then stuck together with some kind of complex glue, and so, yeah. So basically, I don't think I could make anything in this studio.

RAZ: Now, this was the realization Thomas had when he thought about that quote.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY")

FRY: (As The Guide) Left to his own devices, he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich, and that was it.

RAZ: And if he had to, he realized he really couldn't make much of anything at all.

THWAITES: So that's when I thought, OK, I'm just going to try and make an electric toaster starting from scratch.

RAZ: Here is Thomas Thwaites on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

THWAITES: So I thought, OK, I'll try and make an electric toaster from scratch. And - working on the idea that the cheapest electric toaster would also be the simplest reverse-engineer. I went and bought the cheapest toaster I could find, took it home and was kind of dismayed to discover that inside this object which I had bought for just 3.94 pounds, there were 400 different bits made out of, you know, a hundred-plus different materials.

I didn't have the rest of my life to do this project. I had, you know, maybe nine months. So I thought, OK, I'll start with five, and these were steel, mica, plastic, copper and nickel. So starting with steel, how do you make steel? So I went and knocked on the door of the Rio Tinto Chair of Advanced Mineral Extraction at the Royal School of Mines and said, how do you make steel? And Professor Cilliers was very kind and talked me through it. And in my vague rememberings from GCSE Science, well, steel comes from iron. So I phoned up an iron mine. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

THWAITES: Hello, can I speak to Jonathan please?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's underground at the moment.

THWAITES: Oh, he's underground - oh. Well, I'm sort of embarking on a project. I'm trying to make a toaster, and I need to get some iron ore to make the steel bits inside the toaster.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

THWAITES: And so I was wondering if I could come down there and get some iron ore.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, you can do.

THWAITES: Can I?

RAZ: So Thomas traveled north to the mine. He went in, and he hacked away just enough iron to make steel. But he still needed...

THWAITES: Copper, plastic, mica - which is this kind of heat and electrically resistant mineral - and nickel.

RAZ: The amount of things Thomas discovered during the year he spent trying to make those things into a toaster is kind of mind-boggling. For instance, to get copper, he needed water from a mine.

THWAITES: Because water that kind of trickles through will kind of start becoming acidic. And that will lead to this kind of slightly acidic water leaching out to the kind of minerals from the rock.

RAZ: Once he distilled copper from that water, he went looking for the mineral mica. And he found it in the most remote place in Britain.

THWAITES: You know, mica in its natural form is this amazingly sort of beautiful, transparent rock, really. So I was kind of hacking it off the side of a mountain in Scotland.

RAZ: Nickel turned out to be pretty easy. He just melted down some coins. But for plastic...

THWAITES: I realized that you can just about get to the Iron Age when you're kind of working alone. But in terms of making plastic from oil, there's no real way you can do that without a chemistry laboratory.

RAZ: So he went to the local dump, and he found some plastic to melt down into a mold. Now, that all took nine months to hunt all this stuff down and assemble a toaster. And the final product looks, well - I guess you could sort of describe it as, like, a bunch - like, a metal stick hanging out of, like, cake batter, like something drenched in cake batter.

THWAITES: Yeah, and it's got a kind of hole in the side, kind of half-resembling a kind of Stone Age toaster, like a sort of Flintstones-esque toaster.

RAZ: Yeah.

THWAITES: It's sort of grotesque in some ways, yeah.

RAZ: I guess, like, I mean, this is - it's almost like you took this journey of discovery, like you really did. You literally went to all these places to get this material.

THWAITES: Yeah, exactly. It was - I came to this realization that, you know, everything is just so highly advanced, even the most mundane sort of pen or pencil or, you know, like, exercise book. You know, the staples in this cheap exercise book, they're made of this amazingly pure-grade steel, certainly in comparison to the kind of metal I was able to make alone. But someone, you know, 200 years ago made a small, incremental improvement to a process which, you know, is kind of long-forgotten, really. But that has kind of contributed, in some way, to where we are today, really. It's like the whole history of humanity can be - you know, everyone who's ever lived can kind of be found in this, you know, mundane item - toasting bread.

RAZ: Thomas Thwaites - you should really see his toaster and his talk at ted.com. By the way, he did plug it in once. Sparks flew, it overheated, and it burned out in about five seconds. But then it was sold to an art museum.

What did they pay for it?

THWAITES: Twenty-thousand pounds.

RAZ: Wow.

THWAITES: (Laughter) Yeah.

RAZ: Did you get a cut of that?

THWAITES: (Laughter) I sure did.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz - our show today, From Curiosity To Discovery. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.