International Standards and Conformity Assessment for all electrical, electronic and related technologies

World Plugs

Plugs & Sockets

 

Why are there so many plugs and sockets?

why so many plugs

Why so many plugs?

"Why isn't there a single plug that could be used everywhere?" is a recurrent refrain, particularly among frequent (and frequently frustrated) international travellers.

 

While many modern buildings and hotels in China feature a single plug that can accommodate a wide variety of different plugs, in most of the other countries local sockets will only accommodate one kind of plug. The reason for this is historical.

 

Cross-border compatibility not at the forefront of needs

Electricity was first introduced to households at the end of the 19th century where it was mostly used for lighting. For decades devices had to be patched directly into a house's wiring. However, with the increasing spread of labour-saving electro-domestic appliances in the early 20th century, manufacturers needed to find other means to connect them to the electricity supply. And here is where the problem started: in each country manufacturers developed their own plugs and sockets. At that time only a small percentage of people were travelling across borders and their electric devices were generally not very portable. Country-to-country compatibility didn't really matter much, except for voltage and ampere.

 

Standardization came too late

Early efforts to standardize the plug had trouble taking hold. World War II put a halt to all discussions and the issue was dropped until the 1950s. At that point countries had most of their infrastructure in place and vested interests were built right into our walls. Most companies focused on serving their national or regional markets. Today, in the global market having so many different plugs and sockets is highly inconvenient and costly.

 

Is there any hope for the future?

The IEC issued its International Standard for a universal plug in the 1970s; so far it has been adopted by Brazil and South Africa. It is unlikely that there will be a run on the standard in the near future. Literally hundreds of millions of plugs and sockets have been installed and who would convince a country to invest now in changing its whole infrastructure?

 

Most likely the future will lie with solutions such as the USB plug or possibly a multi-plug that can accommodate many different plugs, or even new technologies such as LVDC (low voltage direct current) or wireless charging mechanisms.

 

One thing is certain: this time standardization will not be an after-thought.

 

Link to Wikipedia article.

 

Link to Gizmodo article.