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  • Cool Retrotech

    Posted by David Foster on July 9th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Here’s a guy, Thomas Thwaites, who is attempting to make a toaster, literally from the ground up, starting with primary materials such as iron ore and mica.

    For real retrotoasting, though, seems like he also should make the power source from scratch, with a small generator powered by either a waterwheel or a steam engine. The waterwheel approach might be fairly straightforward, but I’d guess it would be pretty hard to make a viable steam engine without using any machine tools.

    Which raises, of course, the interesting proposition of making a machine tool without any machine tools to make it with…

    Via Isegoria, who sadly says:

    As you might imagine, Thwaites is not celebrating trade, technology, and mutually beneficial exchange; he’s condemning it. Sigh.

    Hopefully the project will turn out to be a little more nuanced than that–Thwaites does say “The project won’t be a ‘how is it made?’ industrial promo or an anti-industry tirade either”…we’ll see.

     

    6 Responses to “Cool Retrotech”

    1. Brett_McS Says:

      Did he discover and then mine the ore himself? He should have started with something easy, like a pencil. Send the result to Leonard Reed.

    2. Andrew_M_Garland Says:

      It takes a village to make a toaster.

    3. Mitch Says:

      Fearless prediction: He will fail, but it won’t make the papers. He will just lose interest and move on. If he is having that much trouble making iron, then steel and Nichrome wire will be at the utmost reach of his capabilities, assuming he gets more resources and acquires the necessary knowledge. So far, he has nearly reached the technological level achieved by the rest of the world in 1200 BC, with the aid of various cheats. The plastic casing will be flat impossible. Wait ’til he starts looking at the chemical precursors to make it, and then tries to fabricate a mold.

      Human society is built on the compounding model. We use previous knowledge to find out new knowledge, existing tools to make better tools, etc. Here is how the artist describes the effort: “The contrast in scale between between consumer products we use in the home and the industry that produces them is I think absurd – massive industrial activity devoted to making objects which enable us, the consumer, to toast bread more efficiently. These items betray no trace of their providence.”

      We have had art as long as we have been human, but we only have time for this degree of irony because of the abundance we have created. Maybe the artist should spend some time as a hunter-gatherer* and watch his children die of curable infections as a corrective. People only buy and sell, produce and consume, when they believe they are improving their situation or preserving themselves and their families by doing so. The ultimate aim of human commercial activity is a longer and easier life, and if you think a toaster can make some small increment to that, you can exchange some of what you have earned for that toaster. The guy who mined the iron ore may have done the same thing, as may every other worker, manager, and engineer responsible for the toaster and everything that went into it. That is not absurd at all. Art may be absurd, and artists almost unavoidably, but not toasters.

      *I don’t see anything in his on-line portfolio as beautifully conceived and executed as the Lascaux cave paintings, so I mean no disrespect to hunter-gatherers.

    4. david foster Says:

      The idea that there was once a golden age, in which people knew how to make all the things they used and personally possessed all the skills necessary for their survival and well-being, is fairly mythical. In American Colonial days, for example, how many people possessed the skills of a wheelwright or a cooper? Probably not many. And in medieval Europe, peasants did not possess the fighting skills of the knights who theoretically (and sometimes actually) protected them from hostile depradations; similarly, most of the knights knew nothing about argiculture or any non-combat trade. In most tribal societies, male and female roles were very distinct, and few men knew anything about the female skills, and vice versa. And so on.

      People today probably have even a less-comprehensive understanding of the total skill set of their society than they used to–partly, this is an automatic function of complexity and division of labor–partly, it is yet another failure of the educational system.

      Arthur Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This may sound profound, but it is not. Magic, by its very nature, is inexplicable–any technology, though, can be understood at whatever level someone wants to take the trouble to understand it.

      How many people go through 12 or 16 or 20 years of school and come out with no idea of how electricity works or where steel comes from or why vaccinations work? I’d bet that it’s the vast majority, and this is not a good thing.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      It might be possible that the project isn’t as bad as the websites description makes it sound. Responding to this post on Hit&Run the artist wrote:

      Firstly you assume that I don’t know about the famous essay ‘I Pencil’, by Leonard Read. I’m not entirely sure what led you to this assumption. As an undergraduate I studied microeconomics and environmental economics at University College London. I found the economics components I did (admittedly just two) to be amongst the most rewarding parts of my BSc., and certainly served in part as inspiration for my later project. In fact I write about the (now legendary) bet between the ‘Limits to Growth’ environmentalist Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon in a book I’ve written to accompany the exhibition. I use it in relation to a point about steadily increasing material wealth. I also quote Adam Smith on the production of pins. Your claim that ‘the miracle of modern capitalism is lost on Thwaites’ is incorrect.

      So maybe he isn’t a complete prat.

      The last part of the project description says:

      The project won’t be a ‘how is it made?’ industrial promo or an anti-industry tirade either. It’s about scale, the total inter-reliance of people and societies, the triviality of some (anti-)globalisation discourse, what we have to lose, and DIY.

      On the other hand we have every right to consider a contemporary high concept artist guilty of intellectual shallowness until proven innocent of I noted in the comments of his reply:

      It looks like Balko did misinterpret the artist’s intent but to be fair, artist travel in vast thundering herds of intellectual clones. It’s not Balko’s fault he didn’t spot the mustang when he mustang looked and sounded like a clone.

    6. TMLutas Says:

      There’s a great video floating around showing someone crafting vacuum tubes. I was enchanted by it and view this project as a similarly useful thing. So long as humanity doesn’t foul up in a major way, these projects have value as art, entertainment. They are profitable on that basis alone. They are also potential competition on a high cost basis. The naysayers are betting that all lower cost alternatives will never be exhausted, that humanity will never make mistakes on that scale.

      That is not a wise bet.

      Creating a profitable body of art that is also a continuing knowledgebase of industrial knowhow is an enchanting improvement over much of modern art with its dreary ugliness and nasty politics. It could also be educational if as a part of the artistic installation an economic analysis was done of what would have to fail for this method of construction to become viable. The art of economics would be advanced (pun intended).