If you travel often, you are familiar with the frustration of trying to keep your devices charged while you move from country to country. The charger you bought in New York won’t work when you get to London, and the adapter picked up in London may not even be safe to plug in when you arrive in Italy.
Why aren’t electrical outlets the same? How come countries, even ones that are next to one another, don’t use the same type of sockets? Let’s take a minute to examine the development of electricity and to understand why countries have different electrical outlets.
Differences From the Start
Home electricity usage was developed in the late 1800s and was defined by competing systems from the beginning. Thomas Edison pioneered the first household electric appliances, such as the lightbulb, using an electric system known as direct current. At the same time, his rival, Nicolai Tesla, developed a more efficient system known as alternating current.
The two inventors competed for years, and while Edison is better remembered by history, Tesla’s alternating current came out ahead. This led to one of the most important differences in rival electric systems – the wattage produced by the system that individual devices were designed to be compatible with.
The first household electric objects were wired directly into a building’s electric system. This was not only dangerous but inconvenient. In 1904, Harvey Hubble introduced the plug as way for individuals without electric skill to connect to the power grid.
This was an important advance for electric appliances and was replicated worldwide by countries that were developing their own electric grids. However, these grids often depended on different wattages.
The different wattages used by rival electric systems meant that there was little reason for engineers to collaborate on the safest and most efficient ways to make electric outlets. After all, the devices that were designed to be compatible with these connections wouldn’t work on that power grid anyway.
The International Electrotechnical Commission, formed in 1906, recognized the need for a standardized system. Unfortunately, in 1914 the first World War began. This conflict not only hindered these efforts but pushed countries to develop further disparate electric grids.
By the time the Second World War had ended, most of the developed world had invested in their own independent electric grids and standardization was considered impossible.
Furthermore, a compatible electric grid was not a priority. At that point in time, portable electrics were not common. After all, not many travelers were packing their favorite lamp or television with them. Few electric devices were designed to be portable, and travelers expected electric amenities be waiting for them with their own plugs.
Today there are 15 plugs commonly used. Will standardization happen in the foreseeable future? The answer is — not anytime soon.
While there is a plug that was developed and suggested by the International Electrotechnical Commission, the IEC 60906, only Brazil has adopted it. Changing over to a standardized plug doesn’t just mean replacing the sockets in a building. It means replacing the wiring of the entire structure. It may even mean converting power plants. This process is too expensive to be feasible in most parts of the world.
However, there is some hope. USB chargers provide a universal charge that can be used with many different types of small devices. If a charging base can be connected to the electric grid, a USB cord can charge any device, effectively negating the need to take different plugs.
So the next time you head abroad, travel light on electronics and bring an extra USB cord. It will be a while before you’ll be able to plug in your laptop wherever you want.