OK, maybe not every country, but with at least 12 different sockets in widespread use it sure as hell feels like it to anyone who’s ever travelled. So why in the world, literally, are there so many? Funny story!
The more you look at the writhing orgy of plugs in the world, the sillier it seems. If you buy a phone charger at the airport in Sydney, you won’t be able to use it when your flight lands in Paris. If you buy a three-pronged adaptor for le portable in France, you might not be able to plug it in when your train drops you off in Germany. And when your flight finally bounces to a stop on the runway in London, get ready to buy a comically large adaptor to tap into the grid there. But that’s cool! You can take the same adaptor to Singapore with you! And parts of Nigeria! Oh yeah, and if said charger doesn’t support 240v power natively, make sure you buy a converter, or else it might explode.
And aside from a few oases, like the fledgling standardisation of the Type C Europlug in the European Union, this is the picture all across the world.
I’d hesitate to refer to power sockets as a part of a country’s culture, because they’re plugs — they don’t really mean anything. But in the sense that they’re probably not going to change until they’re forcefully replaced with something wildly new, it’s kind of what they are.
What’s Out There
There are around 12 major plug types in use today, each of which goes by whatever name their adoptive countries choose. For our purposes, we’re going to stick with US Department of Commerce International Trade Administration names (PDF), which are neat and alphabetical: America uses A and B plugs! Turkey uses type C! Etc. Thing is, these names are arbitrary: the letters are just assigned to make talking about these plugs less confusing — they don’t actually mandate anything. They’re not standards, in any meaningful sense of the word.
And even worse, these sockets are divided into two main groups: the 110-120V fellas, like the the ones in North America, and the 220-240V plugs, like most countries use, including Australia. It’s not that the plugs and sockets themselves are somehow tied to one voltage or another, but the devices and power grids they’re attached to probably are.
How This Happened
The history of the voltage split is a pretty short story, and one you’ve probably heard bits and pieces of before. Edison’s early experiments with direct current (DC) power in the late 1800s netted the first useful mainstream applications for electricity, but suffered from a tendency to lose voltage over long distances. Nonetheless, when Nikola Tesla invented a means of long-distance transmission with alternating current (AC) power, he was doing so in direct competition with Edison’s technology, which happened to be 110V. He stuck with that. By the time people started to realise that 240V power might not be such a bad idea for the US, it was the 1950s, and switching was out of the question.
Words were exchanged, elephants were electrocuted, and eventually, the debate was settled: AC power was the only option, and national standardisation started in earnest. Westinghouse Electric, the first company to buy Tesla’s patents for power transmission, settled on an easy standard: 60Hz and 110V. In Europe—Germany, specifically—a company called BEW exercised their monopoly to push things a little further. They settled somewhat arbitrarily on a 50Hz frequency, but more importantly jacked voltages up to 240, because, you know, MORE POWER. And so, the 240 standard slowly spread to the rest of the continent. All this happened before the turn of the century, by the way. It’s an old beef.
My invention has for its object to…do away with the possibility of arcing or sparking in making connection, so that electrical power in buildings may be utilized by persons having no electrical knowledge or skill.
Thanks, Harvey! He later adapted the original design to include a two-pronged flat-blade plug, which itself was refined into a three-pronged plug—the third prong is for grounding—by a guy named Philip Labre in 1928. This design saw a few changes over the years too, but it’s pretty much the type we use now.
Here’s the thing: Stories like that of Harvey Hubbell’s plug were unfolding all over the world, each with their own twist on the concept. This was before electronics were globalised, and before country-to-country plug compatibility really mattered. The voltage debate had been pared down to two, which made life a bit easier for power companies to set up shop across the world. But once they were set up, who cared what style plug their customers used? What were you gonna do, lug your new vacuum cleaner across the ocean on a boat? Early efforts to standardise the plug by organisations like the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) had trouble taking hold—who were they to tell a country which plug to adopt?—and what little progress they did make was shattered by the second World War.
Here was the pitch: Instead of wiring each socket to a fuse board somewhere in the house, which would take quite a bit of wire, why not just daisy-chain them together on one wire, and put the fuses in each plug? Hey presto, copper shortage, solved. This was called the British Standard 1363, and you can still find them dangling from wires today. Notice how all the way into the 1940s and ’50s—practically yesterday!—the UK was devising a new type of plug without any regard for the rest of the world.
Now imagine every other developed country in the world doing the same thing, with a totally different set of historical circumstances. That’s how we ended up here, blowing fuses in our Paris hotel rooms because our travel adaptors’ voltage warning were inexplicably written in Cyrillic. Oh, and it gets worse.
Is There Any Hope for the Future?
No. I talked to Gabriela Ehrlich, head of Communications for the IEC, which is still doing their thing over in Switzerland, and the outlook isn’t great. “There are standards, and there is a plug that has been designed, the problem is, really, everyone’s invested in their own system. It’s difficult to get away from that.”
When Holland’s International Questions Commission first teamed up with the IEC to form a committee to talk about this exact problem in 1934. Meetings were stalled, there was some resistance, blah blah blah, and the committee was delayed until 1940. Then a war—a World War, even!—threw a stick in the committee’s spokes, (or a fork in their socket? No?), and the issue was effectively dropped until about 1950, when the IEC realised that there were “limited prospects for any agreement even in this limited geographical region (Europe)”. It’d be expensive to tear out everyone’s sockets, and the need didn’t feel that urgent, I guess.
Plus, the IEC can’t force anyone to do anything — they’re sort of like the UN General Assembly for electronics standards, which means that they can issue them, but nobody has to follow them, no matter how good they are. As time passed, populations grew, and hundred of millions of sockets were installed all over the world. The prospect of switching hardware looked more and more ridiculous. Who would pay for it? Why would a country want to change? Wouldn’t the interim, with mixed plug standards in the same country, be dangerous?
Maybe in the future you’ll have induction charging; you have a device planted into your wall, and you have a [wireless]charging mechanism.
Last time I saw a wireless power prototype was at the Intel Developer forum in 2008, and it looked like a science fair project: It consisted of two giant coils, just inches apart, which transmitted enough electricity to light a 40W light bulb. So yeah, we’ll get this power plug problem all sorted by oh, let’s say, 2050?
She took care to emphasise that the standards are still there for people to adopt, so countries could jump onboard, but even in a best-case scenario, for as long as we use wires we’ll have at least two standards to deal with — a 110-120V flat plug and the 240-250V round plug. For now, the Commission is taking a more practical approach to dealing with the problem, issuing specs for things like laptop power bricks, which can handle both voltages and come with interchangeable lead wires, as well as as something near and dear to our hearts: “We have to move forward into plugs we can really control,” Gabriela told me. She means new stuff like USB, which is turning into the de facto gadget charging standard. The most we can hope for is a future where AC outlets are invisible to us, sending power to newer, more universal plugs. My phone’ll charge via USB just as well in Sub-Saharan Africa as it will in New York City; just give me the port.
In the meantime, this means that things really aren’t going to change. Your K-Mart shaver will still die if you plug it into a European socket with a bare adaptor, Indians will still be reminded of the British Empire every time they unplug a laptop, Israel will have their own plug which works nowhere else in the world, and El Salvador, without a national standard, will continue to wrestle with 10.
In other words, sorry.
Many thanks to Gabriela Ehrlich and the EIC, as well as the Institute for Engineering and Technology and Wiring Matters (PDF), and USC Viterbi’s illumin review. Map adapted from Wikimedia Commons by Intern Kyle