I'm Thomas Thwaites and I'm 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.
An obsession has started in my home—toasted cheese buns. Every morning I love toasting up a cheese bun, slathering on some butter, and enjoying it with my coffee. We have only found one grocery store that sells the perfect cheese bun and have to drive 45 minutes to get to it; we end up buying 6 bags of them at a time. I need these cheese buns.
Although the cheese buns are hard to come by, and sometimes I need to resort to margarine because we've run out of butter, the one part of the process I know I can rely on is the toasting. I assume there is going to be electricity running to my home that can power my slot toaster. I presume my toaster is going to toast my cheese bun. These are things I take for granted.
In The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaites sets out to make a toaster. From scratch. He wants to make a traditional slot toaster like I have in my kitchen. From scratch, I don't mean he heads to the nearest Home Depot and picks up the component pieces. He heads out into the world and tries to mine copper ore, smelt it, and turn it into a part of a toaster.
So, firstly, yes, I realise toasting bread over a fire would’ve been a lot easier. But was a piece of toast (or designing a better toaster) really the point of this project?
The common thought when defining technology today is computers, and internet, and gadgets. I like to say I "work in tech", to feed my ego and give myself a false sense of superiority over those who "work in the real world." technology, though, means the practical application of knowledge.
The atlatl was unique technology in Beringia. It allowed hunters to whip their spears faster and further to take down large animals like the Woolly Mammoth. The atlatl is essentially just a stick with a notch that doubles the human arm's length. Beringia hunters practically applied some base principles of physics to take down Snuffleupagus without getting too close. Anyone could conceivably make an atlatl.
"Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it." – Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams
What technologies do you think you could make today from raw ingredients if you look around your kitchen? Using pre-industrial technology? I could have a go at a wooden spoon, but I don't think I could make knives, let alone anything that required electricity.
We're pretty far removed from the technologies we use and take for granted. If someone handed me a chunk of copper ore and told me to make some wire, I'd be lost entirely. Moving beyond metals, if I had to extract dead dinosaur goo from the ground and figure out a process in which the oil would become a plastic that I could wrap around my copper wiring. This is an impossible task.
So are toasters ridiculous? It depends on the scale at which you look. Looking close up, a desire (for toast) and the fulfilment of that desire is totally reasonable.
The cheap slot toaster on my kitchen counter is a technological marvel.
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 provenance.
The ecological impact of the atlatl is comparatively close to nil. Animals did die, and humans are really good at killing animals until they are extinct, but the effect on the global environment was non-existent. The atlatl didn't end the Ice Age that caused the formation of Beringia. That was climate change.
The effect of the toaster on our planet is more complicated. Anthropogenic impact on the environment has skyrocketed after industrialization. The pace quickened when we entered into a global economy. My toaster wasn't made in Canada. It was made in China. The component pieces that make my toaster weren't made in China. They were made worldwide and shipped to China, which turned those parts into a toaster and sent it to Canada. One toaster. Global impact.
Then we have the energy usage each time I decide to toast my cheese bun in the morning. In reality, this is probably a low amount of electricity in the grand scheme, but it adds up to an average carbon footprint of 15.32 tonnes. This is a total of 549 million tonnes of carbon each year, making Canada one of the ten largest emitters in the world.
Our species has managed to cause the extinction of many others during our short time on the planet. The most remarkable death may end up being ourselves.
There is an effect to every marvel. Some results are clear upfront, and some take decades to reveal themselves. The only time the universe created something from nothing was the Big Bang. Ever since then, we've lived in a causal universe. And every cause has an effect.
The outcome of the project will be a toaster that will bear a very imperfect likeness to the ones that we buy - a kind of half-baked, hand made pastiche of a consumer appliance.
Thwaites' toaster is a monstrosity. It is far from the technological marvel sitting on my counter, feeding my cheese bun addiction. The outcome isn't really the point, though.
I received a great email from a reader after the last chapter I published. They reminded me how loving the journey is more important than the destination. It reminded me of this thought from Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar:
Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.
Thomas Thwaites' Toaster Project wasn't really about making a toaster. It was about the journey to create a toaster. The journey is a reflection of our industrialized present. How far we've come as human beings. The marvels we've been able to achieve and the comfort those marvels provide.
Perhaps the majority of human activity can be reduced to a desire to make life more comfortable for ourselves, and has thus far led to being able to buy a toaster for £3.99 [among other achievements].
I didn't quite know what to write about when I sat down for this chapter. I don't have any highlights from The Toaster Project (all the quotes are from the website), and I wasn't sure I had a point of view about someone making a toaster. I'm happily surprised at what ended up coming out. I feel like I actually understand the deeper meaning of The Toaster Project now. This is what Booked is all about.
Thanks for reading or listening to Chapter 7 of Booked. I hope you enjoyed it and would love to hear your thoughts! Shoot me an email at email@example.com.