11:22
TEDSalon London 2010

Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster -- from scratch

Filmed:

It takes an entire civilization to build a toaster. Designer Thomas Thwaites found out the hard way, by attempting to build one from scratch: mining ore for steel, deriving plastic from oil ... it's frankly amazing he got as far as he got. A parable of our interconnected society, for designers and consumers alike.

- Designer
Thomas Thwaites is a designer "of a more speculative sort," he says. Full bio

If we look around us,
00:15
much of what surrounds us
00:18
started life as various rocks and sludge
00:20
buried in the ground in various places in the world.
00:23
But, of course, they don't look like rocks and sludge now.
00:27
They look like TV cameras, monitors,
00:29
annoying radio mics.
00:32
And so this magical transformation
00:34
is what I was trying to get at with my project,
00:36
which became known as the Toaster Project.
00:39
And it was also inspired by this quote
00:41
from Douglas Adams,
00:43
and the situation is from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
00:45
And the situation it describes
00:48
is the hero of the book -- he's a 20th-century man --
00:50
finds himself alone on a strange planet
00:53
populated only by a technologically primitive people.
00:56
And he kind of assumes that, yes,
00:59
he'll become -- these villagers --
01:01
he'll become their emperor
01:03
and transform their society
01:05
with his wonderful command of technology
01:07
and science and the elements,
01:09
but, of course, realizes
01:11
that without the rest of human society,
01:13
he can barely make a sandwich,
01:15
let alone a toaster.
01:18
But he didn't have Wikipedia.
01:20
So I thought, okay,
01:22
I'll try and make an electric toaster from scratch.
01:24
And, working on the idea
01:26
that the cheapest electric toaster
01:28
would also be the simplest to reverse-engineer,
01:30
I went and bought the cheapest toaster I could find,
01:32
took it home
01:35
and was kind of dismayed to discover
01:37
that, inside this object,
01:39
which I'd bought for just 3.49 pounds,
01:41
there were 400 different bits
01:44
made out of a hundred-plus different materials.
01:47
I didn't have the rest of my life to do this project.
01:51
I had maybe nine months.
01:54
So I thought, okay, I'll start with five.
01:56
And these were steel, mica,
01:58
plastic, copper and nickel.
02:00
So, starting with steel: how do you make steel?
02:03
I went and knocked on the door
02:06
of the Rio Tinto Chair
02:08
of Advanced Mineral Extraction at the Royal School of Mines
02:10
and said, "How do you make steel?"
02:13
And Professor Cilliers was very kind
02:15
and talked me through it.
02:17
And my vague rememberings from GCSE science --
02:19
well, steel comes from iron,
02:22
so I phoned up an iron mine.
02:24
And said, "Hi, I'm trying to make a toaster.
02:27
Can I come up and get some iron?"
02:29
Unfortunately, when I got there -- emerges Ray.
02:33
He had misheard me
02:36
and thought I was coming up because I was trying to make a poster,
02:38
and so wasn't prepared to take me into the mines.
02:41
But after some nagging, I got him to do that.
02:44
(Video) Ray: It was Crease Limestone,
02:46
and that was produced
02:50
by sea creatures
02:52
350 million years ago
02:55
in a nice, warm,
02:58
sunny atmosphere.
03:00
When you study geology,
03:02
you can see what's happened in the past,
03:04
and there were terrific changes in the earth.
03:07
Thomas Thwaites: As you can see, they had the Christmas decorations up.
03:16
And of course, it wasn't actually a working mine anymore,
03:20
because, though Ray was a miner there,
03:23
the mine had closed
03:26
and had been reopened as a kind of tourist attraction,
03:28
because, of course, it can't compete
03:31
on the scale of operations which are happening
03:33
in South America, Australia, wherever.
03:36
But anyway, I got my suitcase of iron ore
03:39
and dragged it back to London on the train,
03:42
and then was faced with the problem:
03:44
Okay, how do you make this rock
03:46
into components for a toaster?
03:48
So I went back to Professor Cilliers,
03:50
and he said, "Go to the library."
03:52
So I did
03:54
and was looking through the undergraduate textbooks on metallurgy --
03:56
completely useless for what I was trying to do.
03:59
Because, of course, they don't actually tell you how to do it
04:02
if you want to do it yourself and you don't have a smelting plant.
04:05
So I ended up going to the History of Science Library
04:08
and looking at this book.
04:10
This is the first textbook on metallurgy
04:12
written in the West, at least.
04:14
And there you can see that woodcut
04:16
is basically what I ended up doing.
04:18
But instead of a bellows, I had a leaf blower.
04:20
(Laughter)
04:23
And that was something that reoccurred throughout the project,
04:25
was, the smaller the scale you want to work on,
04:28
the further back in time you have to go.
04:30
And so this is after
04:33
a day and about half a night
04:35
smelting this iron.
04:37
I dragged out this stuff,
04:39
and it wasn't iron.
04:41
But luckily,
04:43
I found a patent online
04:45
for industrial furnaces that use microwaves,
04:47
and at 30 minutes at full power,
04:50
and I was able to finish off the process.
04:52
So, my next --
04:57
(Applause)
04:59
The next thing I was trying to get was copper.
05:03
Again, this mine
05:06
was once the largest copper mine in the world.
05:09
It's not anymore,
05:11
but I found a retired geology professor
05:13
to take me down,
05:15
and he said, "Okay, I'll let you have some water from the mine."
05:17
And the reason I was interested in getting water
05:20
is because water which goes through mines
05:23
becomes kind of acidic
05:25
and will start picking up,
05:27
dissolving the minerals from the mine.
05:29
And a good example of this is the Rio Tinto,
05:31
which is in Portugal.
05:34
As you can see, it's got lots and lots of minerals dissolved in it.
05:36
So many such
05:39
that it's now just a home for bacteria
05:41
who really like acidic, toxic conditions.
05:44
But anyway, the water I dragged back
05:47
from the Isle of Anglesey where the mine was --
05:49
there was enough copper in it
05:51
such that I could cast the pins
05:53
of my metal electric plug.
05:55
So my next thing: I was off to Scotland
05:57
to get mica.
06:00
And mica is a mineral
06:03
which is a very good insulator
06:06
and very good at insulating electricity.
06:09
That's me getting mica.
06:12
And the last material I'm going to talk about today is plastic,
06:15
and, of course,
06:18
my toaster had to have a plastic case.
06:20
Plastic is the defining feature
06:22
of cheap electrical goods.
06:24
And so plastic comes from oil, so I phoned up BP
06:26
and spent a good half an hour
06:29
trying to convince the PR office at BP
06:31
that it would be fantastic for them
06:33
if they flew me to an oil rig
06:35
and let me have a jug of oil.
06:37
BP obviously has a bit more on their mind now.
06:39
But even then
06:43
they weren't convinced
06:45
and said, "Okay, we'll phone you back" -- never did.
06:47
So I looked at other ways of making plastic.
06:50
And you can actually make plastic
06:53
from obviously oils which come from plants, but also from starches.
06:55
So this is attempting to make
06:58
potato starch plastic.
07:00
And for a while that was looking really good.
07:02
I poured it into the mold, which you can see there,
07:04
which I've made from a tree trunk.
07:06
And it was looking good for a while,
07:08
but I left it outside, because you had to leave it outside to dry,
07:10
and unfortunately I came back
07:13
and there were snails eating the unhydrolyzed bits of potato.
07:15
So kind of out of desperation,
07:19
I decided that I could think laterally.
07:22
And geologists have actually christened --
07:25
well, they're debating whether to christen --
07:27
the age that we're living in --
07:29
they're debating whether to make it a new geological epoch
07:31
called the Anthropocene, the age of Man.
07:34
And that's because geologists of the future
07:37
would kind of see a sharp shift
07:39
in the strata of rock that is being laid down now.
07:41
So suddenly, it will become kind of radioactive from Chernobyl
07:43
and the 2,000 or so nuclear bombs
07:46
that have been set off since 1945.
07:48
And there'd also be an extinction event --
07:52
like fossils would suddenly disappear.
07:55
And also, I thought
07:58
that there would be
08:00
synthetic polymers,
08:02
plastics, embedded in the rock.
08:04
So I looked up a plastic --
08:06
so I decided that I could mine
08:08
some of this modern-day rock.
08:10
And I went up to Manchester
08:12
to visit a place called Axion Recycling.
08:14
And they're at the sharp end of what's called the WEEE,
08:17
which is this European electrical and electronic waste directive.
08:20
And that was brought into force
08:25
to try and deal with the mountain of stuff
08:27
that is just being made
08:30
and then living for a while in our homes
08:33
and then going to landfill.
08:35
But this is it.
08:37
(Music)
08:46
(Laughter)
09:47
So there's a picture
09:49
of my toaster.
09:51
(Applause)
09:53
That's it without the case on.
09:57
And there it is on the shelves.
10:00
Thanks.
10:03
(Applause)
10:05
Bruno Giussani: I'm told you did plug it in once.
10:09
TT: Yeah, I did plug it in.
10:11
I don't know if you could see,
10:13
but I was never able to make insulation for the wires.
10:15
Kew Gardens were insistent
10:18
that I couldn't come and hack into their rubber tree.
10:20
So the wires were uninsulated.
10:23
So there was 240 volts
10:25
going through these homemade copper wires,
10:27
homemade plug.
10:29
And for about five seconds,
10:31
the toaster toasted,
10:33
but then, unfortunately,
10:35
the element kind of melted itself.
10:37
But I considered it a partial success, to be honest.
10:40
BG: Thomas Thwaites. TT: Thanks.
10:43

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About the Speaker:

Thomas Thwaites - Designer
Thomas Thwaites is a designer "of a more speculative sort," he says.

Why you should listen

Thomas Thwaites calls himself "a designer (of a more speculative sort)." His thoughtful projects look deeply at the science behind technology, as in the Toaster Project, which sent spiralling him into the history and techniques of metallurgy and plastics production, and Policing Genes, a thought experiment around amateur genetics. We will not mention Honeytrap, an attempt to explore modern criminality through a bicycle theft gone horribly wrong. He's currently working on a project investigating counterfactual histories in science, supported by the Wellcome Trust.

More profile about the speaker
Thomas Thwaites | Speaker | TED.com