Make a toaster from scratch
June 25, 2009 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Toast always reminds me of the global division of labor. A British artist inspired by Douglas Adams is attempting to make a toaster from scratch. Apparently this concept was also addressed before in an essay, "I, Pencil," by Leonard Read, a founder of a Libertarian think tank. Bottom line: Pencils and toasters are difficult for one person to make and using a microwave to smelt stuff for the toaster is apparently cheating.
posted by ShadePlant (40 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This concept features prominently in my "life after the apocalypse" musings. I know that modern survivors would have the advantage over earlier humans in that they know that things like electricity and radio waves exist, and the ores can be smelted into metals. But even with that knowledge, where would you start? I think garbage dumps would become valued technology mines for many years indeed.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:26 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jay Leno has an essay that comes at this from the other side where he tells the story of trying to find a machine shop that can make one single gear for him.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:27 AM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Interesting, until it went all government-is-stupid.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:32 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

He's managed to grind that axe entirely single-handed though, so fair play.
posted by Abiezer at 8:34 AM on June 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

The point at which it stopped being possible for us to make the things that surround us is long past...This faintly ridiculous quest to make a toaster from the 'ground up' serves as a vehicle through which questions about economics, helplessness and life as a consumer can be investigated.

What he is doing is fascinating and worthwhile, but I question his conclusions. I was going to make a joke about how I can make poops all by myself, but with a nod to the "rigor" the artist intended, I cannot make poops all by myself, cos I cannot make the International Harvester equipment necessary to collect the wheat that went into the cookie that made my poop.

This acknowledgement of interdependence is great, but to say that there was some golden age when such interdependence didn't happen at all is goofy. We left that behind when we started farming.

Also: I can make poops!
posted by everichon at 8:34 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, this post was secretly about ANARCHY!!!

I'm going back to my cube now.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:34 AM on June 25, 2009

This is ridiculous: oil from which he planned to make refined petroleum for the appliance's plastic moldings.

A toaster is not "a device with plastic moldings". It is "a device that makes toast". If he's being so slavish as to copy the irrelevant plastic handle, I assume he's also going to make it run on electricity. I'd just like to see him generate 1kW for the 2 minutes it takes to make toast. Alternatively, have you considered fire?

The I, Pencil essay apparently suffers the same fault: the harvesting and processing of cedar, the mining of graphite, and the mining, processing, and application of the many minerals and chemicals that make up the pencil's eraser, ferrule (the bit of metal that holds the eraser in place), lacquer, ink, and the black nickel rings that fasten the ferrule to the pencil's wooden rod.

After the apocalypse, I'm not going to be too particular about the color and exact chemical composition of my pencil's ferrule.

All that said, it's an interesting project to expose the incredibly vast amount of human knowledge encoded in even the humblest device. We've come a long way, baby.
posted by DU at 8:35 AM on June 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

Remember that time that James T. Kirk made a gun out of stuff he found lying around? That was awesome. It was kind of sad that he had to kill that lizard dude, though.

But you need bread to make toast. I'm just sayin'.
posted by longsleeves at 8:36 AM on June 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

God damn, I love toast. Such a versatile food.
posted by everichon at 8:39 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, it takes a particularly bloodyminded deliberate obtuseness to explicitly delineate how "everyone's input is required" and use that as an example of ultimate importance of the individual standing alone from society (i.e. libertarianism).
posted by DU at 8:39 AM on June 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

He should have started with How to build a metalworking shop from scrap metal.
posted by jedicus at 8:40 AM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Gingery used existing tools, though, to build things like the furnace. Also, he uses purchased cold-rolled steel for the ways and threaded rod for the leadscrew, which is definitely out of bounds from this guy's POV. (Gingery did scrape the ways himself, but still.)

/has own unfinished Gingery lathe rotting in basement
posted by DU at 8:45 AM on June 25, 2009

I could make a functional "toaster" from scratch a hell of a lot faster than I could make the bread to toast.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:46 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

We left that behind when we started farming.
We were interdependent long before that. A simple nomadic tribe relies upon a web of interdependence for survival. Heck, the first time two proto-humans joined forces to bring-down a large quadruped for dinner, interdependence was born.

The great fail here is that both toasters and pencils simply don't exist without the necessary industrial development. They were never the result of individual effort. If you want actual, "people used to do this" individualism, carve a quill and whip-up your own ink. THAT you can do.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:47 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

I actually don't think it would be very difficult for a skilled artisan to make a toaster by hand. But it would take a lot of time. The same skilled artisan could design a machine to mass produce them as well.
posted by delmoi at 8:49 AM on June 25, 2009

Fire + Stick + Bread = Toast.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:52 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

carve a quill and whip-up your own ink

And we'd still have to listen to glibertarianism.
posted by ryoshu at 9:00 AM on June 25, 2009

Fire + hot rock laying next to the fire + bread = toast.

Save your sticks for the next fire!
posted by device55 at 9:00 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the famous I, Pencil essay.

And, ahem, the planet Kirk and the Gorn fought on was customized or created by the superpowerful aliens so that they could have a fair contest of brains and strength.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:02 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I agree with Thorzdad. The toaster analogue to the quill pen would be a blacksmith making a wrought-iron toaster meant for use with an open fire or hearth, which are still being produced today, evidently. Those date back to the 18th century at least. Electric toasters simply don't exist apart from the industrial revolution, having been invented in 1893 and not succeeding commercially until 1909.
posted by jedicus at 9:06 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, I don't think the insights of "I, Pencil" are especially friendly to libertarianism.

Libertarian fiction usually attaches a great value to independence, and often fantasizes about small self-sufficient communities living idyllic libertarian lives in asteroids or distant valleys. That's impractical because without the specialization available to a large society, they'd be stuck with a very low level of technology.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:10 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


There. I made (a) toast.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:20 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

DU: The focus of the "I, Pencil" essay is that the free exchange of ideas and the creative spirit of humans has resulted in commonplace devices that, while appearing simple, are the work of thousands of people. This isn't a bad thing, as it's portrayed in the "I, Toaster" gimmick, it's a marvel of society. Sure I could go out, chop some wood and scorch it making my own singularly produced pencil but it could never rival the efficiency and beauty of a Faber pencil.

The "I, Toaster" project seems like a pathetic attempt to stir up controversy for an artist's agenda. By forcing himself to recreate the processes of modern machines by "hand" he's setting himself up to fail completely, which is what he intends to do. That way he can say that modern production has become too complicated for our own good, that even commonplace devices are beyond the reach of any normal man. That we are reliant on thousands of laborers, engineers and middle managers. But like the author of this article points out, that's not a horrible thing. Sure I wish that I understood smelting, wiring, circuit board production, and motivational policies (ok, maybe not that one) and all the things that go into making a modern toaster, but isn't it pretty cool that I can get one anyway, and that instead of costing thousands of dollars it once costs me 4 pounds?
posted by cyphill at 9:26 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies...

Behold: the miracle of ... graphite? Photosynthesis? Woody structures? The harvesting of woody material to be refined into hand-shaped sticks and filled with graphite that was mined from the depths of the earth? If you're in awe over this, there's a whole big world full of such magical events.

Pan back until you've framed the entire world economy, and it's hard not to marvel at the wonder and miracle of capitalism's invisible hand.

Whoa, a blind watch-maker you say?

If there isn't a single person on the planet who can make a pencil or toaster without the aid of millions of others motivated by their own self-interest, it seems ludicrous to think, for example, that we can save the entire U.S. economy if only we can find the right all-knowing experts to use the power of government to "more properly" allocate resources.

No, the process has become streamlined by focusing on one element of the modern toaster. I am sure there are many people who know how to assemble the means necessary to make a pencil or a toaster. Or do you want to start out with an uninformed child, and provide them a toaster and ask them to replicate it based on no outside knowledge?

We came to where we are today from the research and experiments of past generations. Toasters and pencils as we know them are built up from a myriad of techniques and technologies, not a single-minded goal of re-cooking bread or making a writing implement.

But I give you credit for your leap from "marvels of modern ubiquitous items" to "a faceless cabal attempting stabilizing the US economy." That took no small amount of faith in your notions of what goes into stabilizing the economy from a government standpoint. I'm no government wonk, but I assume the efforts to oh so broadly "stabilize the economy" involve a lot of specialists and generalists, who would work together. But I'm just guessing, because to assume a bunch of government geeks are just guessing is rather ludicrous (right?)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:29 AM on June 25, 2009

Fire + hot rock laying next to the fire + bread = toast.

Oven you baked your bread in + slice the bread and put it back in the oven = toast.
posted by ryoshu at 10:28 AM on June 25, 2009

But even with that knowledge, where would you start? I think garbage dumps would become valued technology mines for many years indeed.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 11:26 AM on June 25

I love thought experiments like this. The thing is, knowing what has to be done, i.e. that ores have to be smelted, is of incredible value. Humans were around for roughly 200,000 years before anyone figured it out.

The real problem is organizing the survivors. It isn't do much of a "division of labor" problem, which is what is discussed in this article, but rather a comparative advantage problem. You might be a much better farmer than me, but if you are a better miner than you are a farmer, you should be spending all your time mining, and leave the farming to me. The idea is that the group is better off if every member specializes in that activity for which they have a comparative advantage.

Where this article goes off track is focusing on the toaster to the exclusion of the task of toasting. The purpose of a toaster is to allow cooking and baking novices to toast bread uniformly every time in an efficient manner. If you did not have a toaster, but had a need for toast, you would not spend your time building a toaster. Instead you would concentrate on developing the skill of toasting using whatever tools were already available to you (an oven, a pan, fire, etc.).

Of course millions of people are involved in making a toaster. Those same exact people are also involved in making all the other toasters, toaster ovens, blenders, kitchen appliances, etc. what is actually amazing is not that this is so, but rather that the same people are involved in building toasters now as 5 years ago, but the toasters today are incrementally better at toasting than the ones from five years ago. Someone had an idea about the shape and arrangement of the well understood things, like the plastic, aluminum and graphite that makes the toaster better.

That's the amazing thing- that creativity can be applied to the same set of physical resources to yield a better, more efficient, or less resource intensive device.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:53 AM on June 25, 2009

I like the author's writing - I have posted one of his prior reason articles - and am a fan of this article too.

The point that I took away has much less to do with the technical ability of someone to build a toaster (or the ability to build a fire to toast bread), than with marveling at the efficiency of [the modern market/capitalism/human society in the 21st century/humankind's natural enterpreneurial spirit/whatever you want to call it] in perfecting the design, manufacture, and sale of a device that can very cheaply and effectively do it for you. Things as simple as a $6 toaster or a 25 cent pencil take hundreds or thousands of people working interdependently (but with independent motive).

These combinations happen a gazillion times every day, such that you can go to Target and buy an mp3 player for $25, a pint of strawberries for $1.50, and a pair of kids pajamas for $6. The mp3 player sounds multiples better and holds mutiples of more music than the walkman you used as a kid (which was a marvel back then and was multiples better than your parents' 8 track deck); the strawberries are deliciously sweet and ripe even though you are in Chicago before the harvest time, and they are well bigger than the strawberries you spent $10 (and every day last summer watering and weeding around in your garden) to grow; the kids pajamas are soft and colorful, fire-resistant, and can be washed repeatedly without unraveling. That's a really amazing thing that is sometimes lost in the face of "consumerism is distasteful" sentiment.
posted by AgentRocket at 10:55 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Behold: the miracle of ... graphite? Photosynthesis? Woody structures? The harvesting of woody material to be refined into hand-shaped sticks and filled with graphite that was mined from the depths of the earth? If you're in awe over this, there's a whole big world full of such magical events.

Absolutely! That's why some of us love studying science so much! The world is full of little mysteries waiting for us to discover."
posted by darkstar at 11:00 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Reason piece is a really silly essay, though most of their essays do fit that general description. The conclusions of the artist and his denunciation of the division of labor was equally silly, so I guess they are good company for each other.

The division of work that builds a toaster that can be sold for four bucks is essentially a good example of central planning as well as a good example of capitalism. At the helm of the company making the toaster is a CEO. The CEO, if the company is profitable, has some skills though most likely none of them are directly related to making a toaster. Beneath him is another set of people who in general don't have a lot of toaster making experience. They do, as a team, however understand manufacturing, supply chain management, engineering management and other less related areas of expertise. If you follow this chain down far enough you'll eventually get to people who build the toasters, who understand how to operate the metal brakes, the presses, injection molding and so on. The CEO relies on this accumulation of expertise and plans the general course of the company with guidance and feedback that trickles up through the layers of management and employees beneath him. Stick the CEO on a desert island with access to all the raw materials in their natural and rawest state and you'll just end up with a dead CEO.

The employees work because they get some benefit from doing so and some benefit from their direct managers. Each rank above it also derives and provides some benefit as well.
posted by substrate at 11:04 AM on June 25, 2009

The division of work that builds a toaster that can be sold for four bucks is essentially a good example of central planning as well as a good example of capitalism.

The problem with your thesis is that a company is not analogous to central planning as it is typically understood. First there are a number of companies producting toasters, so there is competition for scare resources (parts) and more importantly for scarce labor, which is the second problem. Labor can move freely from one company to a competitor.

More importantly, thought, the CEO has to take resources prices as he finds them in the market. There is a lot of price competition for the plastic in toasters coming from other businesses outside of toasters. So he has to take the price of plastic as he finds it, and do the same with all the other production inputs. The central planner does not, because the central planner can unilaterally decide that there will be no other competition for plastic other than toasters, thereby collapsing the price of toasters and spiking the price of everything else.

The CEO's skillset is very different than the central planners. Because production input prices are set in the market, he can't realistically deliver a significantly cheaper toaster, because all toasters are made generally the same way with generally the same parts. His choices are limited to product innovation (allocating revenue to toaster research), process innovation (allocating revenue to improve manufacturing productivity) or concentrate on sales and marketing. But all these compete with each other for the same revenue pool. So he has to strike a balance. The successful CEO is therefore only one of three things - a product innovator, a manufacturing/management expert, or a marketing expert.

The central planner does not have to be an expert at any of those things because he controls the market. What he needs to be an expert in is precisely that, the market. All markets. He needs to know what allocating 20% more aluminum to the toaster industry is going to do to the pencil industry, which may require aluminum in its manufacturing equipment.

Of course, no one can be an expert at everything - most people are mediocre at everything, and if they are lucky, they cultivate an expertise in one thing. Central planning fails because it places it's knowledge of all markets above the knowledge of the toaster expert, the pencil expert, etc. The free market works because it assumes that as long as capital can flow freely and we have at least one expert for everything we need, the experts will magically find their way to where they are needs and the markets needs will be met.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:21 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I, for one, know how to make bread from scratch.

Granted, if I had to make it from real scratch (grind down my own grains/whatever is being used to make flour) then it would be pretty tasteless.

But, it would rise, and it would be bread!

Combine this with hot rock + fire + slice of bread = toast.

Or stick and fire.

Or gently toss it across the fire back and forth. Whatever works for you.
posted by Malice at 11:26 AM on June 25, 2009

I'm making toast with a Fresnel lens right now. Later, there will be steak ala Fresnel.
posted by boo_radley at 11:31 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I, for one, know how to make bread from scratch."
You need yeast to make bread. Yeast is everwhere. Yeast is everywhere.
I'm not kidding. It's blowing in the wind.
posted by longsleeves at 12:40 PM on June 25, 2009

Granted, if I had to make it from real scratch (grind down my own grains/whatever is being used to make flour) then it would be pretty tasteless.

Why? The tastiest bread in the world -- french bread -- is made from flour, water, yeast and salt. There's no reason to think your flour would be less tasty than flour you buy. Assuming you figured out how to grind it well, which is a task that can be done with two rocks, so how hard can it be?

Also, you can make a nice bread with just flour and water. It's known as tortillas in some parts of the world and pita in others, among other names.
posted by rusty at 1:29 PM on June 25, 2009

I cannot make poops all by myself, cos I cannot make the International Harvester equipment necessary to collect the wheat that went into the cookie that made my poop.

You can make poop from the mushrooms growing under your couch.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:53 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well... yes, the story of technological progress is that you stand on the shoulders of giants, and eventually you can't see the ground. I write fancy code for a living in very high-level languages like Java and Python. Ask me to build a GUI from the ground up using OS calls and, ok, I can start on that. Ask me to do it by talking directly to the video card and it's harder still. Inasmuch as I'm a smart guy and can learn most well-documented programming tasks if I work hard at them, asking me to build almost anything I've produced for work, by coding in machine language, is a reasonable approximation of "impossible" for me. Let's not go into the fact that I don't really know how to build a processor...

We're human. We build tools to abstract away our problems, so we can solve more complex problems. Instead of having to mine ore and smelt it and mold it, we just pick up a phone and order some metal. Which means we can spend more time focusing on interesting ways to use that metal, while a small number of us get really freaking awesome at smelting, and a few others go and spend lots and lots of time getting ore-mining figured out. And we all end up with really awesome toasters that also walk our dogs.

And frankly, I don't see what's wrong with that. There's an awful lot of us. By specializing, we can get more done, we can produce better things, we can be more efficient. So what if I can't build a toaster from scratch? I don't need to, and when the world ends, we'll learn whatever new-to-us skills we need to, say, turn car wreckage into baby papooses, or whatever. We don't have skills we don't need, but that's very different from not being able to learn them.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:15 PM on June 25, 2009

You need yeast to make bread. Yeast is everwhere. Yeast is everywhere.
I'm not kidding. It's blowing in the wind.

So Bob Dylan was right?

I think the author of the article has a good point...he just maybe argues it too far. It is true that modern capitalism/globalisation is a marvel in doing things like making toasters.

But I think it's blindness is both its strength and its weakness. The thing that strikes me in all the reportage on the financial crisis, though I claim no expertise, is that everyone did exactly what they should have done, individually, to maximise short term profit. So the invisible hand can be a great tool of progress but it can also run everyone blindly off a cliff.
posted by Erberus at 2:23 PM on June 25, 2009

Oven you baked your bread in + slice the bread and put it back in the oven = toast.

Whoa, whoa, now, ryoshu! You're gonna go get a flint-edge to slice with when you've got perfectly good tearin' appendages at the end of your arms there?
posted by No-sword at 4:30 PM on June 25, 2009

A bit late but:

I was bored and out and about today so I went to the RCA show and saw the Toaster project. It does look kind of like a toaster should, if very rough. I actually managed to run into the artist (or really he is a design student) and he said it heats up, but he has no idea if it will melt when plugged into the mains.

Also turns out half that reason article is based on the assumption that because it's an art & design college the project will necessarily be of the "lol, capitalism" type, but he says that is a complete mis-characterisation. He has written a response to the reason article. He said part of the reason for the project was as a response to the argument from sustainability groups that we need to become more locally focused and independent.

Anyway the RCA show is worth a look in, there are a number of cool other things, such as a desktop reconstruction of the Casimir experiment/effect and a chair which recreates the experience of taking off in a Soyuz rocket.
posted by Erberus at 9:28 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

From Rumple's FPP:

A hand-made toaster, made in prison.
posted by WalterMitty at 5:33 PM on June 27, 2009

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