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Silly sockets

I’ve just seen this BBC story about electrical plugs and sockets around the world:

BBC News: A universal plug socket… at last?

I can see what the writer’s getting at, but it seems a bit silly on several counts, and wishful thinking on others.

The wishful thinking is apparent. Yes, it would be sensible to have an internationally agreed standard for plugs and sockets. But it’s unlikely to happen in the near future – people won’t want to go to the expense of refitting their entire electrical system, and manufacturers won’t want to go to the expense of retooling either.

But it’s the silliness that really gets me. The notion that multi-standard sockets in Chinese hotel rooms are a consequence of Hong Kong returning to China seems a tad far-fetched. If that were the case, then why does the socket pictured also have holes suitable for, say, US/Japanese and Swiss/Brazilian style earthed plugs – none of which are in general use in China or Hong Kong?

It’s far more likely that these sockets were designed for hoteliers to install to suit their internationally travelling customers. They’re especially useful in Asia, where standards vary hugely between and sometimes within countries – though most seem to use at least one of the US, Euro, UK or Aus standards. (Socket choice in India and Bangladesh seemed to vary from house to house when we were there, or sometimes even from room to room!) We’ve lost count of the number of places we’ve stayed in that have these handy sockets.

I’d imagine that North American hotels assume their guests have North American-type plugs and provide North American-type sockets only accordingly. (If any of you in the States or Canada can tell me otherwise, please do!) With the widely varying number of standards in Europe, it would make sense for hotels to fit their own national standard sockets and leave it to their guests to bring adapters with them. That might explain the author’s failing to come across a multi-standard socket before.

I’m not sure what he’s on about regarding German and French sockets. The pins of German and French plugs follow the same set of standards, apart from earthed plugs, where the French version has a hole for an earth prong and the German one has two plates which mate with sprung contacts on the wall of the socket recess. On the other hand, the UK shaver plug has two pins but is smaller. If he’s been able to plug in a shaver in France but not Germany, that suggests the socket in France was non-standard.

The DC/AC debate in the early years of electricity in America certainly happened, and Edison certainly did all he could to smear Westinghouse and his AC system – he even lobbied for the process of execution by electric chair to be officially called “to Westinghouse”, and gave public demonstrations of how “dangerous” AC electricity was by electrocuting animals. In fact, there’s little to choose between them – at the voltages required for domestic uses, electricity of either variety can kill.

But it’s a red herring. It’s more likely that national peculiarities arose because each country set its own standard as it adopted mains electricity. Those countries that had a sufficiently advanced domestic electrical goods sector could afford to develop their own standard. Those that didn’t simply adopted the most easily available existing system. (This would explain why use of UK-standard plugs – both square-pin and old round-pin – is widespread in much of the Commonwealth, but Canada has adopted the US standard and Australia and New Zealand have come up with their own).

As for light fittings, the screw fitting is probably no more new-fangled than the bayonet fitting. (The screw fitting’s commonly known as the Edison screw, which gives a big hint as to how old it is.) And there are several sizes of Edison screw anyway, so people are likely to continue to have to have several sizes of bulb.

I grew up being proud of the BBC as one of the world’s best broadcasters, if not the best. I wish I could continue to be proud of them, but they’re making it more and more difficult.

2 Responses to “Silly sockets”

  1. The Admiral

    Cannot agree with the writer on this, electricity is a universal item, why should the pettiness of individual countries restrict the movement of products, increase costs, because of a unique plug system employed.

    At last the mobile phone industry has realised the error of its ways and is introducing a universal charging plug, so no more holding 8-10 different chargers in a drawer to find that none of them are suitable for the new mobile/iphone

  2. Dave McMahon

    Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure what it is that you don’t agree with, though. As I said early on in the post:

    Yes, it would be sensible to have an internationally agreed standard for plugs and sockets.

    But, as I went on to say, it’s not going to happen any time soon. And I stand by that.

    If money were no object, then I’m sure a changeover could happen over the next decade. But imagine the cost of replacing sockets and plugs through an entire household, and then multiply that by the number of households in any given country, and it adds up to quite a tidy sum.

    So inertia will prevail – helped, no doubt, by the legislative and diplomatic difficulty of agreeing an international standard as each bloc argues for the merits of its own particular system. I think the only answer is to go for one which is either totally new or else creates the least disruption for the greatest number of people – something like the ISO standard which the Brazilians and South Africans have already partially adopted, perhaps. (Though personally I like the safety shutters and the downward-pointing flex built into the BS 1363 system. Hooray for British technology. :-D)

    I’d not heard about this universal charger plug standard for mobiles that you mention. It sounds like a good idea – for travellers, anyway. A quick search reveals that it’s based on the microUSB socket. Not to my great surprise – it makes obvious sense, and we’ve already got a couple of devices (one mobile, one Kindle) that charge up that way. (My mobile has a microUSB socket, but you can’t use it to charge. Bah!)

    I’ve never actually faced the problem you mention in your second paragraph, though. Any new mobile I’ve ever bought has come with its own charger, which is always on my desk beside the trailing socket when it’s not in use. The only times I’ve had a problem is when I’ve forgotten to take it out of the drawer and put it in the big bag of electronic gubbins Kay and I cart around with us when we travel!

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