Inspired by Douglas Adams, Royal College of Arts graduate Thomas Thwaites shared his bumbling archeological-industrial adventure in building his own toaster during the Graduate Session at Design Indaba Conference 2010. There was one question on the minds of the audience:
Did it make good toast?
I made the toaster for my MA graduation project in July 2009, but I’d entered a competition months before to present my project at a conference in Rotterdam.
The conference was called “Test_Lab: What Crisis?!” at the V2 Institute of Unstable Media. They liked what I was trying to do, however they wrote to me asking what I would be able to demonstrate; the event was called “Test Lab” after all, and was about the audience interacting with the work.
At the time the conference was being arranged (February 2009), I was still labouring under the illusion (yes, deluding myself) that I was going to be able to make a steel pop-up spring, some kind of electric timing mechanism (I was planning to make a giant capacitor for this purpose), and that generally the toaster I was creating would be quite robust and workable. Therefore I wrote back to V2 to say that they should select me because I’d come and demonstrate my toaster and make everyone toasted crumpets.
The conference was on 9 July 2009, just a few days after the RCA degree show ended – its proximity to which meant that I’d completely put it out of my mind while I was concentrating on my degree show. So it almost came as a bit of a surprise to jump on a plane to Rotterdam, my toaster carefully packed in a box, which I carried as hand luggage (the security people didn’t bat an eyelid – it clearly looks like a normal toaster when x-rayed or something).
I’d still not actually plugged the toaster in before (being too worried that I’d melt it before my degree show and thus fail or something – and the health and safety guys at college said they’d already put up with a lot from me and wouldn’t let me make toast at the degree show). Also I’d not managed to make any insulation for the wires from the “plug” to the toaster (Kew gardens had threatened to prosecute if I came and tried to extract rubber from their centuries-old Brazilian rubber tree). This meant that when I switched it on, there would be 240V or so running from my handmade plug, through hand rolled bare copper wires, to the element, made out of a nickel coin mixed with impurities and more copper. I was concerned that rather than just the element getting red hot, the whole circuit (plug, wires and element) would short circuit and get hot, and the whole lot would melt. On top of that I was worried that I’d electrocute myself, or worse a member of the audience.
Therefore I decided that I’d just put the toaster on a plinth and talk a bit about how I made it and that’d be fine, as the place was probably quite small and no-one would be coming anyway. However when we got there it was actually a rather plush venue, they had multiple cameras to stream the event live, we were sound checked with those headset radio mics (leaving our hands, free) – it was clear that a demonstration was very much expected. It was a toss up between being a let down/disappointment/embarrassment and attempting to make toast. People risk death rather than be socially embarrassed all the time, and I’m no exception.
Anyway, I was very nervous about plugging in the toaster. We’d arrived a couple of days early with the intention of looking round Rotterdam and relaxing after the degree show – I spent the next two days running earth cables from various points on my toaster and the metal table it was to be displayed on, to various metal structures in the space, in an attempt to ensure that the path of least resistance would never be through someone’s heart.
On the night I was wearing rubber soled trainers, and was reminding myself to stand on my right foot and use my right hand when operating the toaster. I gave my talk and then came the demonstration. I had my bread ready, and placed it in the toaster. I switched the thing on and for a brief glorious two seconds the toaster glowed from the inside as the element (yes the element, not the entire circuit!) got red hot – but all too quickly the glow got too bright, and then after just a couple of seconds the element melted itself. And that was that – I raised up the bread and inspected it for any signs of charring. There were none. Still no one had died, the correct bit of the toaster had got hot (just too hot), and the bread was a bit warm. I consider it a partial success!
So the short answer: No, not yet. But I’ve repaired it, and am waiting to take it somewhere with a 110V mains supply. I think it will toast there.
For more information, do visit the Toaster Project website: www.thetoasterproject.org