Look on this toaster, ye mighty, and despair!

The electric toaster seems a humble thing. It was invented in 1893, not long after the light bulb and long before the microchip and the laser. This century-old technology is now a household staple, and reliable, efficient toasters are available for a few pounds. Nevertheless, Thomas Thwaites, a postgraduate design student at the Royal College of Arts in London, discovered just what an astonishing achievement the toaster is when he embarked on what he called “The Toaster Project”. Quite simply, Thwaites wanted to build a toaster from scratch.

The difficulty of the task began to become clear. To obtain the iron ore, Thwaites had to travel to a former mine in Wales that now serves as a museum. His first attempt to smelt the iron using 15th-century technology failed dismally. His second attempt was something of a cheat, using a recently patented smelting method and a microwave oven – the microwave oven was a casualty of the process – to produce a coin-size lump of iron.

Further short cuts were to follow. Plastic comes from oil, but despite launching a charm offensive against BP, he never did make it out to an oil rig. His attempts to make plastic from potato starch were foiled by hungry snails. He settled for scavenging plastic from a local dump, melting it and moulding it into a toaster casing.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.