Electrocuted by the dozen

Why there are over a dozen different electric plugs and how not to get electrocuted when traveling abroad

Written by Maja Zivkovic

You know that awesome feeling, when you step out of the arrival gate and land your first step on the ground of a whole new country? The buzz stays with you during your whole taxi ride to the hotel. You get to your room and it’s great — the view is beautiful! Then, you remember — you need to charge your phone if you’re going to be sightseeing all day — lots of photos to be taken. You look for the wall outlet in the room, you find one and… your great mood is ruined. The electric plug in the hotel room doesn’t fit your device’s plug. Now you won’t be able to charge your phone until you find a store that sells a converter and you will spend a good portion of your great day on lousy shopping instead of taking selfies in front of tourist attractions. Why does every country seem to have its own electric plug? Is it a conspiracy against tourists or are countries just too stubborn? Shouldn’t the same plug be used everywhere?

Actually, the sock(et)y situation has a lot to do with the initial bad design of the first standard US plug and a little with the whole Edison versus Tesla situation in the 19th century. But, let’s start from the beginning. Thomas Edison developed electricity supply in the form of direct current (DC) in the late 1800s which had some issues due to its tendency to lose voltage over long distances. In came Nikola Tesla with an invention of a means of transmitting electricity long-distance using alternating current (AC) power of 110v. As AC power was the only option that enabled long-distance transmission, it soon became a national standard. However, Germany on the other hand wanted a much higher voltage and settled on a small increase to 240v — more than double the power, because 110v is for weak Americans, I guess. This 240v standard quickly spread to the rest of Europe, but Americans were far too deep into the 110v standardization of the whole country which meant that switching to 240v was no longer a viable option once they realized how much better it was in the 1950s.

So that’s why the voltage is different — but why are there different plugs and sockets? The reason why many tourists have problems powering up when traveling abroad with over a dozen different styles of plugs and wall outlets in the world, is actually to do with a bad initial design of the first standardized American plug. A three-pin outlet with an earth pin used as the neutral supply line was invented to increase the safety of the plug, specifically in the event of a short circuit. But the American plug was actually quite wobbly and the uninsulated prongs actually had the opposite effect and were quite unsafe. This is why many countries developed their own, safer versions of the plug and why there are now a dozen different versions. The Interntional Electrotechnical Commision (IEC) did develop a plug in the 80s which was meant to be universal and implemented in the whole world, but the world (minus Brazil and South Africa) would not have it.

So, there’s no hope for the tourists and care-free charging abroad. It seems that, for the foreseeable future in order to avoid self-electrocution, you’ll have to spend your money on expensive converters instead of souvenirs for your girlfriend’s cousin. But hey, it’s not like her cousin got you something from his trip to London either - though a previously used plug converter would have been nice.