I’m planning trips to Morocco and Germany this year, and am currently in the process of buying international power plug adapters that will allow my Type A and Type B devices (used in North America) to work in those countries. In the process of researching adapters and coming across this adapter set that should theoretically allow my devices access to electricity anywhere in the world, I became fascinated by how the sockets and plugs used in different countries/regions often reflect and are part of complex, intertwined histories of technological development, colonialism, and war.
A quick Google search revealed that I’m definitely not alone in wondering how all these international sockets and plugs came to be, and this excellent Gizmodo piece by John Herrman, which draws on information from the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) website, explains the historical and political processes that resulted in the diversity of electrical sockets and plugs in use today. Herrman hesitates to describe sockets and plugs as cultural based on the fact that they’re mundane and “they don’t really mean anything,” but sockets and plugs are part of our material culture, and the ordinary objects that we unquestioningly incorporate into our everyday lives often yield the most insight into social/cultural practices and norms.
A Brief History
Household electricity became available in the late 19th century and was initially used for indoor lighting. Electric devices at that time had to be patched directly into the house’s wiring, which was inconvenient and dangerous (the IEC). The proliferation of labor-saving electrical devices (like vacuum cleaners, irons, water heaters) in the first half of the 20th century required people to start developing ways to safely and quickly connect devices to a structure’s power supply. The ancestor of the electrical plug as we know it today in the US was a device invented by Harvey Hubbell in 1904 that allowed non-bulb electrical devices to be plugged into a light socket. Hubbell and Philip Labre later adapted that design into the two- and three-prong plugs that, with some variations, we still use today in North America.
As Herrman mentions, we see similar invention stories and trajectories crop up all over the world, with everyone putting a different spin on the socket-and-plug scenario. The 12 most widely-used plugs in use today were developed from these predecessors and have been in use since the 1920s or the post-WWII period
Tracing the Legacies of Colonialism and War
The UK and Ireland use the Type G plug and socket (a.k.a. BS 1363), developed during the post-WWII rebuilding period, when there was a worldwide copper shortage. Instead of wiring each individual socket to a central fuseboard in the structure, which would use a lot of copper, they developed a plug with a fuse built into it, and each socket is connected to a ring circuit (the ring starts at the fuse/breaker box, visits each socket in turn, and then returns to the breaker box in one big chain).
The British Isles had previously used Type D, or BS 546, hardware, as did some British colonies. Britain’s occupation of India ended in 1948, before the Type G plug had become widely used in Britain or its colonies, and India continues to use the Type D system today. Type D is also still in use in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Namibia.
Belize, a British colony from 1862-1964 (at which point it became a self-governing colony; Belize gained full independence in 1981), uses Types A and B found throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, as well as Type G, because electrical work there would’ve incorporated the postwar development of BS 1363 (Type G) in the UK. I didn’t run into any Type G sockets/plugs during my travels in Belize, but the IEC lists them as being in use there…perhaps in parts of Belize City or Belmopan (established as the capital in 1970) there are structures that use that system.
So we’ve seen that we can use plugs and sockets to trace technological and political change across the former British empire. What about other colonial powers?
Morocco uses the Type E plug (used in France) and the Type C (a.k.a. the Europlug, used in most of the European Union). This reflects its colonial history–it was divided into French and Spanish protectorates from 1912 to 1956–as well as its proximity to southern Europe. Tunisia, also a French protectorate from 1888–1956, uses the Type E plug, as well.
To summarize, and as Herrman says, “Basically, the best way to guess who’s got which socket is to brush up on your WW1/WW2 history, and to have a deep passion for post-colonial literature.”
Who made the choices when it came to deciding what plug to use when a nation hadn’t yet developed one of its own or wanted to switch it out for whatever reason? Of course practicality would be factored into this decision–if neighboring countries used a specific system, you might be more likely to adopt it (though certainly not always). But if a particular political group wanted to affiliate itself with/differentiate itself from another nation or region, perhaps sharing the same socket/plug configuration was one way to indicate that.
The Continuing Non-Globalization of Plugs and Sockets
At the time plugs and sockets were being developed and widely used, transnational compatibility wasn’t a priority; people weren’t traveling as much and electric devices were not as portable as they are today. At this point, countries and regions have invested in their own systems and are reluctant to change their entire infrastructure to meet the goal of international compatibility…though some countries with a big tourism base may have adopted the sockets/plugs of regions where the majority of tourists are coming from (which are also usually geographically nearby).
As we’ve seen, national standardization exists to varying degrees, with most countries using an average of two or three different types of sockets/plugs, and some, like Jordan, using up to 5 or 6, but international standardization wasn’t and still isn’t given much thought, despite the efforts of the IEC. Many newer structures in China, however, have sockets that are compatible with all types of plugs, and that could well be the future of electrical compatibility. A willingness to accommodate the full range of diversity here could be seen as a reflection of China’s business, trade, and tourism policies, as well as social and cultural attitudes about globalization and China’s place within the global economy. If the pressure to standardize continues, does/could having your own plug type become a matter of national or regional pride?
The next time you find yourself cursing because you just blew a fuse in your hotel room in Russia by using the adapter you bought in France, or because you found out the hard way that your “universal adapter” isn’t really all that universal, it may help to stop and marvel for a second at the fact that this jumble of sockets, plugs, and adapters is the direct result of these global historical and technological processes…processes that are still playing out in and through the mundane material culture of our day-to-day lives.