Shocking!

Anyone who has traveled internationally has almost certainly cursed the various electrical systems of the world. Why do North America and Japan have one type of plug, while the UK and Ireland have another? And how come those plugs are different from plugs used in India, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland… all of which are different from each other? And how did China and Argentina end up using the same plugs as Australia and New Zealand?

In short, you might wonder why there isn’t a “universal plug”. If you think about it, though, the real question is… why would there be a universal plug?

When electricity first came to homes in the United States and other countries, it was only used for lighting. And light bulbs were wired directly into the electrical system. Indeed, part of the reason early bulbs lasted so long – like the Centennial Light at a fire station in Livermore, California – was because replacing a bulb meant calling an electrician to remove the dead bulb and wire a new one in.

This, of course, was a huge expense and inconvenience, so a slew of inventors came up with ways for customers to easily replace bulbs themselves. One version became more popular than all others, and it probably shouldn’t surprise you that it came from Thomas Edison. The “Edison screw” became the standard base for almost all household light bulbs in North America and Europe. So now, people could replace bulbs by simply unscrewing the dead one from the fixture and screwing a new one in.

Edison Screw
The Edison Screw, via Wikipedia

What few imagined at the time, though, was the birth of electrical appliances like toasters and radios. Early versions of these products were also wired directly in to the electrical system, which was a huge pain: to move a radio from one room to another, you’d have to call an electrician, and you’d possibly have to repair busted plaster or drywall the electrician would have to open to get to the wires running through the walls.

So inventors went back to the drawing board again, and came up with something like this:

Light Socket Adapter
photo via Amazon

This is a modern device that screws into a light socket, provides two outlets you can plug any two-prong device into, and a pass-through socket you can screw a bulb into. But in the early days, there wasn’t a single standard for electric plugs, and were all kinds of different plugs on the market in the US. A toaster might use one type of plug, a radio another. If you wanted to use the two devices on the same adapter, you’d have to make sure they used the same plug, or have an electrician rewire one device with the appropriate plug.

Finally, in 1904, a man named Harvey Hubbell II was awarded a patent for the modern American electrical plug, now called a “Type A” plug. Some time later, a third (ground) prong was added; this is called a “Type B” plug. Type A & B are used throughout North America, Japan, most of Central America and the Caribbean.

While all this was going on in the US, conflicting plugs and systems were raging all over Europe and the UK, too. Inventors there came up with systems and plugs that worked well for their countries, and eventually standards were settled there as well.

So why didn’t anyone ever talk about a universal plug? Because there wasn’t a need for one. International travel wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, and those lucky enough to travel overseas usually didn’t want to bring lamps with them. International trade in electrical devices wasn’t common, either, since each country had its own manufacturing base. And by the time portable devices like electric razors and radios became common, electric standards had been set. Thus, travelers have been forced to buy plug adapters and power converters ever since.

In 1986, the International Electrotechnical Commission got tired of all the different plug types in Europe and created a new type of plug – Type N – they hoped would become the standard throughout the entire European Union, and perhaps the world:

Type N plug
Photo via worldstandards.eu

But the EU didn’t consider it a top priority, and since any mention of new plugs set off unending bickering between EU members, the whole matter was shelved for good in the mid 1990s. And the idea was a non-starter in non-EU countries like the US and Japan as they all had plugs that worked fine… or were at least “good enough” not to incur the massive expense of switching over to a new plug for no good reason.

But one country was interested in a new type of electric plug: Brazil. At the time, Brazil had at least ten (ten!) different types of plugs in common use throughout the country. In 2001, the Associação Brasileira de Normas Técnicas (Brazilian Association of Technical Standards) adopted Type N as the sole electric plug to be used throughout the country. Hooray!

There’s just one little catch, though: although the country has had a single standard for electric plugs for 14 years now, Brazil is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t have a standard voltage! As unbelievable as it might seem, most of Brazil’s 27 states use 220 volts, but there are a few that use an older 127 volt standard. So an electric coffeemaker bought in the state of Minas Gerais will blow up if plugged into an outlet in the Distrito Federal… and because every device now uses the same Type N plug, there’s no visual warning to prevent you from doing that!

Technology: one step forward, one step back.

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