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The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaites

2012/01/04

Making things from scratch and buying local is what all the cool kids are doing, so Thomas Thwaites decided to take this trend a step further and attempt to build a common household appliance. Sounds simple enough, right? Not quite. Thwaites begins by taking apart a cheap supermarket toaster, which turns out to have over one hundred fifty parts (some of which are composed of other, smaller parts), and after further analysis, the components are made of “at least thirty-eight different materials. Seventeen of these are metal, eighteen are plastic, two are minerals (the mica sheet and the talcum powder stuff inside the power cord) and one is just weird (the strange wet papery rubber inside the capacitor)” (20). As he sets out on the daunting task of tracing these materials to their sources, Thwaites enlists the assistance and advice of a number of experts, including academics, experts, and historians; transcripts and copies of emailed correspondence provide a hilarious look at the initial response and following dialogues. He tosses in a little history, a quote from Douglas Adams via Arthur Dent, a lot of science, and a whole host of spectacular failures, including an attempt to make steel with iron ore and a homemade furnace.

This is a fascinating look at what happens when an inquiring, creative and bright mind is allowed some freedom to work. Thwaites combines history, science, technology, and a good bit of time and effort in his “heroic attempt to build a simple electric appliance;” his adventures are highly entertaining, humorous, and illustrated with great photographs of his work in progress. This is a great book for the curious, the engineers, the scientifically minded, and those who have ever wondered, “How would I make that, anyway?” It may have some appeal to teens, especially those who may have played with tinkertoys as a child, and who got into trouble for taking apart some important mechanism to the dismay of their parents.

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