Day 16 – Today I am thankful for toasters.

That may seem like an odd thing for which to be thankful. And this may just be a way to sneak in an overdue book review. But think about a toaster for a second. Doesn’t seem all that complicated. Could you build one?

If you had all the pieces – body, wires, levers, etc. – could you put together a toaster? Probably, especially if you found something online.

What if you didn’t have the pieces? Could you make them? Thomas Thwaites took that to the extreme with some inspiration from Douglas Adams and detailed his efforts in The Toaster Project. He doesn’t pop down to the local hobby store to pick up the electronics he needs. Nope, Thwaites smelts iron and makes plastic … from scratch. And here I thought my brownies were impressive.

The book’s a quick read, and I recommend it. It’s not just a story of processing copper and nickel. Thwaites touches on environmental issues of mining and waste and has fascinating conversations with professors, scientists and people who spent their lives learning how to do what Thwaites is trying to do in a couple of months.

If the book has a drawback, it’s that it’s too quick of a read. Thwaites could have spent more time expanding on the issues he encounters or profiling the people who help him. I wanted to know more, but maybe that would have changed the book into a dry sociology piece.

The Toaster Project points out how much we take for granted. A toaster is an incredibly complex machine with multiple components (about 400) that break down into even more components. I couldn’t make one. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Thwaites figures it out though and his toaster works … sort of. You’ll have to read it to find out the details.

Check out Thwaites’ web site and also his TED talk for more details on the toaster project and his other work.

The Toaster Project
Thomas Thwaites
Princeton Architectural Press
$19.95, paperback, 192 pages
Release date: Sep. 23, 2011


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