So Thwaites set aside his centuries-old instruction manual and instead dug up tales of modern experimentation via an online patent search. There he pulled up an industrial smelter design that called for microwaves, and miniaturized it. After one household microwave was forced into retirement by too much recipe riffing, a second was coaxed into producing a single coin-sized iron disk. One down, four to go.

Next up: Copper. Seventy percent of the world's known copper reserves reside in seven countries: Chile, the United States, Russia, Congo, Peru, Zambia, and Mexico. Open pit (exactly what it sounds like) or underground mining (think tunnels snaking 3000 feet below ground) are used in massive operations to pull up ore. Processing goes like this: To get the material to 20- or 30-percent copper, the ore is crushed and the stuff you want is separated from the waste rock. Leaching or smelting takes out the iron or sulfur present, and then refining filters out the last of the impurities. It's a big process, but Thwaites came up with a brilliant workaround. Led by a geology professor, he ventured down into a copper mine in Wales—formerly known as the largest in the world—and picked up several big jugs of acidic mine water. In that water was enough conductive material to cast the pins of his plug. A little home brewed electrolysis later, and Thwaites had himself the bones of something that could fit in a socket.

Scotland provided Thwaites with the mica he needed. In fact, he just chipped some off of a mountain, perhaps a necessary soft ball after dealing with blast furnaces and acid. The mica would serve as electrical insulation.


Plastic was a little trickier, but, Thwaites says, "It's the defining feature of cheap electrical goods." Since plastic is made from oil, Thwaites got on the phone with BP and attempted to convince them to fly him out to an oilrig on their dime. After one conversation, BP stopped returning his phone calls. But Thwaites knew plastic could be made out of other things—potato starch being one of them. The task had a promising start, but went awry when snails pillaged the toaster mold caked in potato over night. "Out of desperation," says Thwaites, "I decided that I could think laterally."

The world produces something like 260 million tons of plastic annually, up from 1.5 million tons in 1950. Half of that goes to lightweight, single use plastic products and packaging containers that are inefficient to recycle and largely nonbiodegradible. Geologists of the future, Thwaites thought, would look back and see layers of synthetic polymers embedded in the rock. So he figured he could mine plastic from his own home, melting it and then pouring it over his hand-chipped mold made from a tree trunk.


Amazingly, it worked. Kind of. He was able to boil down, he says, "the massive industrial activity devoted to making objects which enable us, the consumer, to toast bread more efficiently." In the end he put together a haggard-looking stripped-down version of something we can buy for the price of a sandwich. It only took him nine months, several trips across country lines, and a many moments of lateral thinking.
He did plug it in once, but because he wasn't able to make insulation for the wires, the toaster started melting itself about 5 seconds in. Thwaites considers it a partial success.

Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco

Original artwork by Gizmodo guest artist Chris "Powerpig" McVeigh. You can check him out on Flickr or Facebook. Or both!