‘The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.’
– Friedrich von Hayek
‘Cross the river by feeling for stones.’
– Attributed to Deng Xiaoping
1 ‘You could easily spend your life making a toaster’
The electric toaster seems a humble thing. It was invented in 1893, roughly halfway between the appearance of the light bulb and that of the aeroplane. This century-old technology is now a household staple. Reliable, efficient toasters are available for less than an hour’s wage.
Nevertheless, Thomas Thwaites, a postgraduate design student at the Royal College of Art 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. He started by taking apart a cheap toaster, to discover that it had over four hundred components and sub-components. Even the most primitive model called for:
Copper, to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires. Iron to make the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast. Nickel to make the heating element. Mica (a mineral a bit like slate) around which the heating element is wound, and of course plastic for the plug and cord insulation, and for the all important sleek looking casing.
The scale of the task soon became clear. To get iron ore, Thwaites had to travel to an old mine in Wales that now serves as a museum. He tried to smelt the iron using fifteenth-century technology, and failed dismally. He fared no better when he replaced bellows with hairdryers and a leaf-blower. His next attempt was even more of a cheat: he used a recently patented smelting method and two microwave ovens, one of which perished in the attempt, to produce a coin-sized lump of iron.
Plastic was no easier. Thwaites tried but failed to persuade BP to fly him out to an offshore rig to collect some crude oil. His attempts to make plastic from potato starch were foiled by mould and hungry snails. Finally, he settled for scavenging some plastic from a local dump, melting it down and moulding it into a toaster’s casing. Other short cuts followed. Thwaites used electrolysis to obtain copper from the polluted water of an old mine in Anglesey, and simply melted down some commemorative coins to produce nickel, which he drew into wire using a specialised machine from the RCA’s jewellery department.
Such compromises were inevitable. ‘I realised that if you started absolutely from scratch, you could easily spend your life making a toaster,’ he admitted. Despite his Herculean efforts to duplicate the technology, Thomas Thwaites’s toaster looks more like a toaster-shaped birthday cake than a real toaster, its coating dripping and oozing like an icing job gone wrong. ‘It warms bread when I plug it into a battery,’ he told me, brightly. ‘But I’m not sure what will happen if I plug it into the mains.’ Eventually, he summoned up the courage to do so. Two seconds later, the toaster was toast.