A universal plug socket... at last?

World plugs

Three pins. Two pins. Slanting pins. Straight. Circular. In a world where there is no global standard for plug design, taking electrical items abroad can be fraught with difficulties. But now a solution may be at hand - and already in use in China.

I have to report a minor breakthrough in the great power play between nations, and a very pleasant one at that.

Any global voyager burdened by electrical equipment will have been hugely frustrated by the rabid protectionism of the international electrical plug and socket industry.

It is almost as insistent a badge of nationhood as having your own national airline: an electrical plug that will fit only into an electrical socket designed by an intricate-minded national to be utterly impervious to other countries' plugs.

From Our Own Correspondent

  • Broadcast on Saturdays at 11:30 BST on BBC Radio 4, and weekdays on BBC World Service

Thus we have flimsy American two-pin sockets which are sometimes splayed in other countries. Two round pins in Europe, with German ones apparently minutely further apart than in France to frustrate the electric shaver.

There are also mighty British three-pinners with an enormous earth socket that seems rarely to be used, themselves a 1950s replacement for several curious smaller three-pinners which must have dated back to the days when electricity was invented.

Australians and New Zealanders have their own three-pin plugs to keep the "Poms" (and everyone else) at bay.

Woman in an airport Tickets. Passport. Money. Travel adaptors.

This plethora of standards probably goes back to the beginnings of public electricity in the late 19th Century and the battle between AC - alternating current - and DC - direct current.

The great American electrical pioneer Thomas Edison stood for DC. His rival George Westinghouse was in favour of alternating current, as developed in Europe.

Safety first

American plug

Mark Coles, of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says:

"It is extremely hard for world travellers visiting different countries to find suitable adapters allowing proper connection to locally provided socket-outlets.

"Whilst no international standard exists to which all adapters should be made, a socket-outlet which universally accepts all types of plugs seems like a very good idea.

"However, it is important that a number of rules be adhered to.

"The plug should be held firm allowing good electrical contact at all times. Should a crackling sound - or arcing - be heard, then disconnect immediately.

"The electrical connections or metallic pins of the plug should never be visible whilst in use and, when the appliance is not in use, it should be disconnected."

One of the considerations was the relative safety of direct current - the first electric chair seems to have been built (and then used) to prove that alternating current was more of a killer.

After that, plugs became a national peculiarity, as cartels of national manufacturers drew up proposals for plug designs that met the safety standards of the day - and kept overseas competition at bay.

All this is a long-winded way of expressing my delight the other day when I found in my bedrooms in two new hotels in China a simple all-purpose wall socket that took the plugs of many nations - including those of the UK.

I have not previously encountered such a thing in years of travel.

It is wonderful not to have to struggle any longer with those converters that never exactly fit, or fail to have a vital hole or pin. It is normally discovered only when a shave is vital or a flat battery urgently needs a recharge to enable recordings to continue.

Oh, what pleasure to plug in my three-pin British plug the other evening in Inner Mongolia, so very far from home.

Why is this now possible?

It seems to be a new application of the "One Country, Two Systems" policy first applied to shapes of government when Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997.

Since China now includes Hong Kong, Hong Kongers travelling to their own land needed to be able to use the three-pin plugs they inherited from all those decades of British rule, instead of the two- or three-pronged flat Chinese plugs.

So the UK three-pin plug has taken China by stealth, in a last gasp of British imperialism. What a slogan: "One socket, two nations." Or even: "One socket for all."

In the wake of this minor triumph, I have a modest proposal to make: surely it is now time for the world's statesmen and women to turn their attention to that other source of electrical irritation, the humble light bulb.

Most British homes are still struggling with the new low-powered energy efficient bulbs that are often too big for the old-fashioned shades that do not fit them any more.

But the fittings are twofold - the ancient UK standard bayonet, or the newfangled continental screw-in bulbs.

Bayonet bulbs must have lost their monopoly under a twin-pronged assault from overseas - the bureaucratic requirements of the European single market, plus the rise of the mighty continental retailers in the UK.

They brought their own fixtures and fittings with them, screw-in bulbs and all. So most British homes are now required to carry a stock of two completely different kinds of light bulbs, twice what people need on the continent, or in the screwed-in United States.

It is expensive and inefficient.

In the gaps between struggling to save the eurozone, the diplomatists and politicians of Europe could embrace a new cause.

Let them convene a World Light Bulb Convention with the aim of ushering in a new enlightenment.

If the Chinese can stoop to acknowledge the existence of the British electric plug, then surely the peoples of the world should also be ready for the proud democratic concept: "One light bulb for all." Or maybe, to put it into Mandarin, "Many Systems, One Bulb."

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 11:30 BST.

Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 11:00 BST (some weeks only).

Listen online or download the podcastThe Institution of Engineering and Technology - The IET

BBC World Service:

Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website.

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