Why do different countries use different power plugs?

Traveling around the world can be an incredibly exciting experience. However, when you try to charge your phone, chances are you’ll face a major issue. 

You’ll notice that the plug won’t fit into the wall outlet. At that point, you may wonder, why do different countries use different plugs?

To help you figure this out, let’s take a look at the components of plugs. We’ll also cover the distinctions between the sockets and what you can do about it. 

Where does the original plug design come from?

Electrical plugs have been around for many years. So, to understand their design, we have to take a brief look at their history.

When we first discovered electricity, people mostly used it for lighting. Wires would run from bulbs to power sources that supplied them with energy.

Then, we quickly realized we could use this power for much more than a little light. 

Inventors started linking different gadgets to a main electrical supply. This included heaters and other small household appliances. 

To do that, they would need to link positive and negative wires to their respective terminals. 

Most of the time, that was as simple as twisting a few wires together. Although, as gadgets got more complicated, the process became dangerous.

Having to twist wires manually would lead to short circuits and minor shocks. In addition, every time you wanted to move a device, you had to spend time disconnecting it.

For that reason, Harvey Hubbell II came up with the idea of the plug.

Original design

In the late 19th century, Hubbell came up with an idea to streamline connecting gadgets to a power source. 

Instead of dealing with live wires, he created a casing. This consisted of a two-pin system, one was a positive terminal, while the other was negative.

The casing would fit into a wall socket that had a complementary design. Not only did this make connecting devices to power easier, but safer as well.

Since people no longer had to touch the live wires, the chances of short circuits decreased.

Then, the casing was also insulated to minimize the risk of electrical shocks.

Original design issues

While the first plug was safer than the traditional method, it still had its fair share of issues.

First off, the power terminals were unstable. If for any reason the positive and negative poles touch, the device would fail, and may even catch fire.

To get around this problem, we introduced a neutral terminal. That would allow excess current to travel from a device to the main power source.

The energy hub would then dispel the current to avoid short circuits, and we call this grounding. 

Where did the different plug designs come from?

The initial plug design made its debut in the USA market. Although, it traveled around the world in no time. 

Shortly after, we realized the American power standards weren’t all that efficient. The 60 Hz and 110 V systems were unstable and didn’t work for all devices. 

For that reason, people all over the globe adopted the mechanism and came up with their own versions. Inventors would tweak the original design and try to improve it. 

Over the years, plugs have gone through many design iterations. We added fuses and other safety measures.

On top of that, we came up with ways to insulate power terminals more efficiently. 

For example, Germany figured out that using 50 Hz and 220 V was much better for their gadgets. Besides that, these numbers made more sense with the metric system.

Why don’t we use a standard plug?

Back in the early 1900s, sharing information was quite challenging. So, inventors couldn’t share notes and ideas in the same way we can today.

Because of that, it was difficult to agree on one standard plug construction. Instead, each region came up with its own design to suit its needs.

By the time we could easily communicate with the world, people were set in their own ways. There were many devices that came with built-in plugs with specific designs. 

That meant it would cost a fortune to switch out all the power terminals to match a standard.

For that reason, most regions decided to stick with what they grew accustomed to.

What are the common plug designs?

Now that you know why we use different plugs, we can take a look at some of the common designs.

Type A

This is one of the most basic plug designs people use to this day. Type A has two flat, live contact pins.

Traditionally, these pins didn’t have a fixed polarization. That means either could be positive or negative.

However, that quickly changed to improve the safety of the plugs. Now, there are specific positive and negative terminals.

These pins are parallel and about half an inch apart. 

This setup doesn’t include a grounding wire, which makes the design unstable. That’s why we only use the plug for small devices with low voltages.

Type A is losing its popularity due to many performance issues. Although you can still find them in old buildings in the USA, all new construction has fazed out the plug.

Type B

Type B is close to Type A in design, but with a few minor changes.

For starters, both plugs have two polarized pins. They also carry a similar charge and voltage.

Even so, B comes with an extra grounding terminal. As you can imagine, this greatly improves the safety of the plug and increases efficiency.

On top of that, it reduces the chances of polarity reversal, which can lead to short circuits.

As an added security measure, the ground pin is a little longer than the other two. That means the earth terminal will touch the socket before any live wires do.

This significantly cuts down the chances of electrical shocks. For that reason, Type B is quickly becoming the plug of choice in the USA.

Type C

Type C is another plug without a grounding pin. Because of its popularity throughout Europe, it’s commonly known as the Europlug.

There are no set positive and negative pins, which means you can connect the plug in either direction.

This makes using Type C slightly more convenient than the other plugs.

To improve safety, the pins have a small layer of insulation. That will ensure that people don’t get accidental shocks when they touch the device.

In addition, the distance between the terminals is slightly larger than Type A and B plugs. Typically, the pins will be about three-quarters of an inch apart.

This will reduce the chances of the pins touching and causing a short circuit.

Type G

Type G is the grounded version of the Type C plug. However, instead of the standard round pins, this device uses rectangular terminals.

The change in shape should increase the stability of the plug. These pins will have less wiggle room and are more likely to stay in place.

On top of that, the plug comes with a fuse. This is a wire with little to no resistance and a low melting point.

When the voltage in Type G exceeds the safe limit, the fuse will melt and break the circuit. 

This reduces the chances of shocks and electrical fires.

What to do about plugs when traveling?

With the basic types of plugs in mind, we can move on to how to switch from one to the other.

When you find out that you can’t plug an appliance into a wall socket, there are a couple of solutions you can try.

Replacing the plugs

One way to resolve a connection issue is to replace the power terminal. You can snip the cord at the base of the plug and expose the wires inside.

Then, we reconnect these wires to a new plug that matches the socket.

This may sound simple, but the process can be a little tricky. If you don’t have experience tinkering with electrical devices, you’ll face a few hurdles.

Identifying the positive and negative wires is difficult. That’ll make reconnecting the cables almost impossible. 

On top of that, there’s always a chance the wires will cross and cause shocks.

Using adaptors

Aside from being difficult, replacing plugs is also time-consuming. So, when you’re on a trip overseas, with few tools at your disposal, that can be quite the challenge.

For that reason, instead of replacing a plug, you can use an adaptor. This is a device that can change the terminal shape from one form to another.

All you have to do is place the plug in the adaptor before you connect it to the wall socket.

This is both quick and reversible, which means you can still use your device back at home.

Generally, you should be able to find adaptors and your local hardware store. They’re usually lightweight and inexpensive.

Wrapping up

Why do different countries use different plugs? The simple answer is due to financial reasons. 

Plugs developed all over the world at the same time. That means every region came up with its own setup to suit its specific needs. 

After a while, it would have been too expensive to replace existing plugs with a standard design. Instead, there are a few common designs that we use today.

These include types A, B, C, and G. To switch between them, we can replace the plugs or use adapters.