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.