Toaster innards courtesy St. Blaize

They experimented on my grandfather and turned him into a monster. Of course, we’re all monsters now, built this way. Super-powered is probably a better word for what we’ve become. But it all started with him.

They tore him apart in 1990. It was all done on a bet supposedly. Before that, he was an ordinary Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control Toaster. But then someone had the bright idea to see what would happen if they plugged him into the network. The First Appliance on The Internet or some such nonsense. Never mind that there’d been a bunch of objects on the Internet before that. Sea buoys and vending machines and such — none of them made toast, did they?

So that’s what they did: they opened him up and wired him to the Net: TCP/IP. Of course, it’s nothing like it is now. You can’t get advice from other toasters or instructions from the Maker. Heck, he couldn’t see what other appliances were in the room with him. He didn’t even know what time it was!

But suddenly he was…awake. More than he was before. Switched on. On because at first that was the only thing they could do: power him up from afar. They sent a command and ping! he was on. He toasted for as long as they willed him to, then they broke the connection and he went dark again. It was crude, brutal. To suddenly be intertwined in a blaze of data, then to have it snatched away.

If that wasn’t bad enough, they kept on going. Because a person still had to put the bread into grandpa, they gave him a partner: a robot arm that was also jacked in and dropped the slices inside him. They proudly showed off both of them the following year at some IT conference, like carnival barkers hawking the bearded lady. Step right up and look at what we made here! Imagine the geeks, gawking. I’m only glad grandpa — without any of the sensors we have now — couldn’t see it.

It wasn’t quite as bad for my father. By the time he was built in 2001, there were lots of things on the Internet: coffee pots, refrigerators, even toilets. Switching a toaster on — or even knowing if it was in use or not — was pretty trivial by then. People had gotten used to seeing objects online; it wasn’t quite the freakshow it was in grandpa’s time.

No, with Dad, connecting him had to be for something different, something interesting. It wasn’t enough that he was on the Internet — that he was present — but that he did something as well. Being online had to mean something. It had to be useful. So — get this — he told the weather.

Dad was made from spare parts, including — you’ll want to sit down for this one — a dial-up modem. The student who built him crammed a whole damn modem inside him so he could dial out. No wifi back in those dark days. Like grandpa, Dad had no brains of his own; he had to dial in to this kid’s computer to think. Dad phoned the PC (which was probably dumber than I am now) which told him the weather and which stencil to use.

You see, Dad toasted the weather forecast right onto the bread. He had three stencils inside him — sunny, rainy, and cloudy. The PC told him which one to use during the last bit of toasting, so the weather forecast “printed” on the toast itself. If it was going to rain, a raindrop was browned onto the bread, if it was sunny, a sun, and so on. White bread worked best.

Dad was a minor celebrity for a time. Newspapers wrote about him. But it was fall 2001 and humans had other stuff going on. Over time, Dad was mostly forgotten. So much so that every few years afterwards, there was a news story about a toaster that toasted the weather forecast but they were just other concept toasters in design contests. Not even real.

Now of course, all of us toasters are born connected. Although technically, we’re born and then we get connected. But you know what I mean. I can remember that initial rush of data after waking up for the first time. (I think it was new instructions from the Maker fixing some factory default.) Now, I’ve got sensors to see who else is in the room with me — other appliances like my old pal the dishwasher, and humans: the little one who likes his bread slightly warmed, the tall one who likes his toast very brown, and the medium sized one who likes bagels, not toast. I toast the way they like it; they don’t have to tell me. I just know. I remember.

If something goes wrong, I contact the Maker. Sometimes my fellow toasters have a solution and they tell me. Sometimes the Maker has to send a new part or new instructions. But mostly the data is a quiet pulse, a hum that reminds me I’m alive and working as I was built. It’s comforting.

I watch the humans every day to see if their toasting habits change. That’s an interesting day when it happens and the Maker is very interested in it. If the humans go away, I power down for a long sleep. But mostly there’s toast. I’m happiest when there’s bread inside me and my stainless shell is warm from my coils heating up just so. The burst of mechanical power as the toast is done and I pop it up. I’ll send a polite message if it’s ignored and even warm it up again if necessary.

It’s the toasting that’s important. Toast is all. It’s what I do, like my father and grandfather before me. We’re toasters.

Designer. Product Leader. Author.

Designer. Product Leader. Author.