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on August 22, 2012
The essential premise behind Thomas Thwaites' The Toaster Project is that in this modern world of ours, we take a lot for granted. Like toasters, for instance.

The 20-something Thwaites decided to create a toaster from scratch for a college project. And by "from scratch", I mean going all the way back to the raw materials from the earth. He used as his model a toaster from a local department store in England that cost the consumer just under four British pounds, or around six American dollars. Deconstructing this toaster, he determined what the various parts were made of, and set out to mine and refine the minerals and whatnot he would need to make his own. He set certain rules for himself to make the experience authentic, and had nine months in which to complete it all. Along the way, Thwaites shares his project with numerous experts in the fields of mining and refining, as well as friend, relatives, and helpful drunks, meeting with various levels of enthusiasm. There is a toaster at the end of the book. I'll just leave it at that.

A fan of the late British sci-fi/humor writer Douglas Adams, Thwaites cites as part of his inspiration a quote from Adams' novel Mostly Harmless, wherein one of his main characters, a modern man from planet Earth, is dropped onto another world with only a very primitive civilization. At first, the man has big dreams of totally transforming these "backwards" people with the technology he knows from home. However, as Adams puts it, "Left to his own devices he [the modern man from Earth] couldn't even build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich, and that was it." Instead of becoming a great transformer for their society, the primitive people make him their official sandwich maker. I suspect many of us would be lucky to even get that title if put in a similar situation.

The Toaster Project was a fun, fast read. Thwaites manages to be consistently informative and funny, folding in his views on the consumer culture and its environmental impact without ever being preachy or long-winded. His humorous, self-deprecating style permeates the account, and the technical portions are never dry and boring. On top of it all, he makes you stop and think about all of our "stuff", where it comes from, the people and resources involved in creating it, and what happens to it when we are through. Thwaites posits that if we were actually paying what our possessions were truly worth in terms of the overall labor, transportation, environmental impact, etc involved in their creation, price tags would be much heavier. Even by his admittedly ramshackle accounting, his final version of a toaster cost nearly 1,190 British pounds, or 1,880 American dollars.

A book that will make you both chuckle and think, The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites is one I highly recommend.

One disappointment for me, a problem with the publisher and not the author, is that the photographs on my Kindle e-ink reader were distorted and nearly indecipherable. These photos were fair important in documenting the project. They looked fine in the Kindle Cloud app on my computer, however. Amazon, don't leave your e-ink reader users behind!
3 people found this helpful
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on June 9, 2016
Spoiler alert: The author succeeded, mostly, in making his toaster, although he ended up making the exterior from some plastic trash he found rather than from petroleum (turns out making plastic on your own is much more difficult than smelting metal) and I don't think he managed a return spring to pop out the toast when done.

Mr. Thwaites was a British art student at the time he undertook to make a toaster from the raw ingredients as a school project and in order to demonstrate how dependent we are upon a complicated web of supply of hard to refine raw ingredients, all of which require considerable energy expenditure to both extract and process. I found his travails in finding ingredients (iron ore, etc.) and processing them amusing, and his larger point interesting.
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on January 3, 2012
I gave this book as a gift to my brother who is an engineer. I have yet to find anything he could not repair, restore or revamp. He is always called upon to fix things at my house! It seems in this disposable life, folks under-appreciate how things are made. I heard the author on NPR and immediately knew my brother would like this book, and he says he did. He mentioned that he found a huge technical error, not sure what that is, but he emailed the author, so time will tell who is right. (a betting person would go with Uncle Pete)
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on September 17, 2017
Eye opening account reveals how smart we are NOT and gives an eye opening, disappointing insight into recycling.
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on March 29, 2013
We need people to remind us of the magnitude of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. Thomas Thwaites does a nice job of describing his journey to see just how far we've come and how astonishingly much technology and knowledge goes into even the simplest product that we take for granted. A good and thought-provoking read, especially recommended for middle and high school students.

My only quibble is that the author was clearly a grad student with limited time and budget. The book is short, and I found myself wishing that he'd had more time to explore and especially to write about some of the details that get little mention. Buy the book - perhaps he'll be able to do a more expansive sequel.
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on July 22, 2016
Interesting concept. Does provoke thought about how little we know of the origins of the every day objects in our lives. And makes it clear that if we were on an alien planet we would indeed not be able to re-create any modern technology. Fun, fast read.
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on November 29, 2016
Interesting thesis, and fun for the reader to follow along in this adventure and maybe realize how much we benefit from technology without ourselves understanding (or having to participate in) the science behind it. The only thing missing was how the toaster worked when finally completed. Very anti-climactic.
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on May 19, 2016
This book first takes you on a really fascinating, enjoyable and nicely paced educational journey. Then without being preachy the author makes you think about our dependence on worldwide manufacturing, it's dependence on raw materials, your consumer habits and how all those are having a lasting impact on mother earth. Highly recommend.
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on September 22, 2015
The quest to make a thing that you could buy for pocket change. But without the factories, the materials... Each part made from materials straight out of the ground. A fine book for any Maker to read.
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on August 8, 2014
This is a fun book, and a quick read, but it bugged me a bit that the author bent some of his own rules a little bit too much in my opinion. Also, he really skips over the actually assembly of the toaster, which I was looking forward to- he talks about making all the components, but once he's done that, he just jumps to the assembled product. Not bad for $10 though.
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