Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch

Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch


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

100 thoughts on “Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch”

  1. Our confort life style depends on the intelectual legacy of generations and the tecnical capability of all the people that made the things we have… i think the greatest point of this talk is that "no man is an island"… we are highly social beings, a simple toaster requires the knowledge of hundreads, maybe thousands of people, spread all over the world… that's our greatness the ability to come together… even if it's only to toast some bread.

  2. A lot of people are going to struggle to understand the point of this video, finding his quest pointless – but there is an important message here. Despite the fact that we live in this age of information it is sometimes surprisingly hard to learn the basics of something from scratch.

    I encountered a similar problem when trying to learn the basic principles on which a CPU chip works. I kid you not, EVERY online resource simply says something to the effect of "the CPU goes there and does this".

  3. @EqualAndFree Those things are used up in all our appliances. If we were to become extinct for some reason all these resources are still here on earth, and would just end up back into the ground.

  4. @EqualAndFree Yes, that's a good point. But I think there is always gonna be potential for another society just like this after this one. Whether it is from garbage or from mines.

  5. This would be an awesome idea for a tv series like scrapheap challenge but it would be for people who had only internet and some prepared resources for help. "Make a lightbulb" or an "electric motor". Held in Africa with top students.

  6. The book the quote is from – Mostly Harmless – actually has quite a few interesting points about the interdependency of humanity, if you discard half the story and squint really hard – about the philosophy behind the problems that this (rather inspired) guy ran into. Really god to think about, I think.

  7. They should have given this talk from one of Amerikas Toughest Prisons. Now those Are the guys who no really how to make shit from scratch! Thank you corporate America! Of Course this guy was probably somebodies bitch!

  8. @1010011010is29a
    It's an illustration of complexity; a demonstration that the world around us has a complicated history of technologies that depend on each other. He's not using rudimentary tech because he's trying to illustrate a low-tech way of doing this, he's using rudimentary tech because that's the easiest method to implement.

    It's not a challenge to build a toaster without using any modern tech, it's a challenge to build a toaster without premade components.

  9. umm he didnt know how to make iron from ore O_o
    any noob shud know just seal ore coal and some calcium based ore and heat it up…..

  10. this guy sucks, should have made a japanese stack furnace instead of a shitty trash can one that would only really work on aluminium. plus he should have tried to make a plastic injection mold using instead of a shitty press mold that he had upside down 🙁 why is this guy even at ted?

  11. "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe" – Carl Sagan [same goes for your toaster]

  12. @mangoswiss He only set out to build a toaster from raw elements. He never said he couldn't use any technology to build it, a method which might be impossible. Toasters are a recent invention does demand at least SOME technology to build. It defeats the story that he mentioned at the beginning, but you get the idea.

  13. He didn't cheat, he set out to build this as if he were every single one of the laborers who contributed to a <4 pound (currency) toaster. This project shows better how many man-hours go into each toaster, not how many man-hours went into the uncounted inventions required.

    As for his methods and why he's at TED — simple, he actually *did* it. Even if you know the theories and processes, you still haven't went out and tried it. I'm sure if you did, you'd encounter more problems than planned for

  14. "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." — Carl Sagan

    Surely applies to toasters too.

  15. @christo930 But that's the point of the talk. He's showing us how dependent we are on the rest of society… if he would have made a perfect toaster, his point would have been ruined. It also strengthens his point even more that he had to use the leaf blower and the microwave etc. The toaster was a colossal failure, but the talk was an amazing success.

  16. @christo930 I guess you shouldn't have posted a comment that suggested otherwise then. Then I never would've corrected you.

  17. So… if I'm an eccentric weirdo who achieves nothing other than bother people and waves my arms around on stage for 11 minutes while appearing to be under the influence of some kind of drug I can get a video on TED? This did nothing but prove the already obvious point that human technology as we have today is highly advanced, even for simple everyday object.

  18. It's true that if it's not farmed it's mined!
    Check out careers in Canadian mining by searching explore for more mining.

  19. @Chronosaur I think this video also demonstrates that we got to where we are today by working together. No one person can do it alone from scratch. That as a species, the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts.

  20. @BlitzWing00

    non-zero-sumness is so often overlooked, especially by the people who celebrate capitalism and demonize leftists as socialists. Collaboration is the key to all the wonders of civilization. Even language is a product of collectivized effort. Duh, right?

  21. if you need to make a toaster, all you need is some pottery clay, dexterous hands, and heating element (assuming you live in a world where there is electricity).

    If you you are talking a post apocolyptic scenario, then I'd just go with a solar something or other. This talk exposes the biases of our "experts" today. These people are IDIOTS and they're leading us down a fucking dead end.

    I mean, if you're making it from scratch, WHY IN THE FUCK would you make it like GE does? WTF!

  22. Only in the free market can all of these resources and tools that go into such ordinary products be made available exactly when they are needed and when it is cost effective. No one person had to delegate all of the labor that went into every piece of this keyboard; it was made possible all through the price system. Which I think is absolutely amazing.

  23. @rehabwales — He didn't have to do this to show us that. To me, this is just an insult: "I got paid to travel around making a redundant point that could have been made in hundreds of other cheap and more helpful ways–and I got to have the advertising advantage of a TED talk and Colbert interview to boot!" But I guess for somebody with no skills he did well for himself.
    He could have written a book about how it was impossible to do alone, rather than using his mom's microwave.

  24. My goal in life is to give every individual the ability to create their own infrastructure. The trick is self-propagating machinery and home agriculture

  25. Many things may come from combined knowledge, but new knowledge always comes from the individual, not a group, just one person. One person created the toaster. One person created the lightbulb. One person developed the farming methods that allowed us to stop our nomadic lifestyle. To believe that, EVERYONE had a role in this development is a tad bit shortsighted.

  26. This is a great argument against the anti-society attitude of the libertarians and margaret thatchers of the world. I notice people saying that this is obviously biased and not the way you'd build a toaster if you absolutely had to from scratch, but that's rather missing the point as it's still a relatively simple device compared to everything else. A Computer Mouse was another good example.

  27. @majob Individual acheivement is all well and good, but good luck inventing a toaster before iron or electricity has been invented. Everything is dependent on what came before. That's the point he was trying to make.

  28. So Thomas Jefferson didn't invent the lightbulb that is the basis of all the lightbulbs we know and use today? Got ya. As for farming, no one who knows who started farming as we know it, but most of the popular and efficient techniques known today were developed by single people. As for the toaster, I'l give you that one. The point I'm making is that it isn't about a bunch of people sitting down together and making ideas. It's one person spreading their ideas. The individual. Not the group

  29. Humphry Davy invented the light bulb and Thomas Edison(Not effing Jefferson) came up with materials that produce better light and worked longer… But yes you're right about that sharing of inventions leads to better and more inventions but you should really read a history book and learn to tell an old president and one of the greatest inventors of all time apart!

  30. Heaven forbid someone make a error in the heat of an argument. Don't make idiotic assumptions about one's knowledge because of one mistake. You were smart enough to see it, so you also should have been smart enough to consider that I might not have made it intentionally.

  31. Wow…all this effort to duplicate something that you do with fire and perhaps some sticks and/or thin rocks. I mean seriously–build up the *effect* you need, not the specific device–especially since you have yet to develop electric generation means, either…

  32. Which is why trying to jump straight to the toaster on day one is an idiotic move. Arthur *was* right to a degree, however, as knowledge of advanced technology (and the Guide to look it up in) would allow him to make the locals progress a lot *faster*–because all the hard theory and experimenting had already been done, and he just had to teach methods, step by step.

  33. Simple–because it burns the bread faster, more evenly, and more efficiently than would could by doing it by hand over a fire. That said–stupid methodology to try to jump from zero to the modern device in one go. You have to build the tools to build the tools–and understand (pun intended) the core elements of the device in the first place. Assuming he had a power source to start with, all he really needed was the heating element, and something to keep him from burning *himself*.

  34. When I read the title I thought, "that's pretty simple," but then I realized early in the talk that, when he says from scratch, he means from SCRATCH! We're not talking about going to buy plastic from the store & then fitting it for a toaster case, we're talking going to the mines to mine the original elements! This was a great talk!

  35. It's hard not to respect this guy for his dedication, and I appreciate the reminder of whats involved in the things we take for granted. But the first toaster was basically a few conductive coils and a wire frame. He'd have done better with asking "How would I build something to toast bread from scratch?" 

  36. I saw this video years ago, found it the most entertaining thing in a while, but never realized the deep significance of the message till now…

  37. This makes you realize how important teamwork is. If humans couldn't communicate and work together, we would still be walking on the Savannah.

  38. A great lesson in the division of labor, if I remember correctly, chapter one of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.

  39. 日本人です。このプロジェクトを日本で書籍化した『ゼロからトースターを作ってみた結果』を読みましたが、まぁ面白いことw
    この動画を観ている日本人の皆さんも是非読んでみてください

  40. We learned, we don't really have to be an expert in each part of a process of doing something, just to know who knows to do It…we will save a lot of money and time. On the other hand, we don't have to have all the knowlegde of the specific things, just to know where to find It and the most important how to use It.

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