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Why Are Electrical Plugs Different in Europe?

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Jason asks: “I just got back from my first trip to London. I knew going in that the electric plugs were different, but it still threw me off. Is there a reason the plugs evolved differently? What does the rest of the world do?”

In a nutshell, plugs and sockets differ from region to region and even country to country because, at the time they were being developed, no one really saw any reason to make them all the same.

First, a little history. When electricity was first introduced into homes and businesses, it was primarily for powering lights. Early devices and appliances that ran on electricity had to be wired directly into a building’s electric system. It was a little inconvenient—you couldn’t easily move, say, a lamp, from one room to another without wiring it in again—and a potentially hazardous task for most people to attempt.

Starting in the 1880s, several inventors patented variations on a connector that allowed the cord from an appliance to be screwed into a lightbulb socket for power. (Thomas Edison was not one of those inventors, and that was a “curious oversight” on his part, says historian Fred E. H. Schroeder, since he “anticipated almost everything that might relate to the incandescent light bulb and its applications.") These connectors made it much simpler and safer to connect an appliance to power. Since they screwed into the socket, dropping the appliance or pulling too hard on the cord meant you might damage the device, the cord, or the socket.

In the early 1900s, inventor Harvey Hubbell improved on the idea with his Separable Attachment Plug. The plug had an inner connector screwed into the light socket and an outer connector (attached to an appliance by a cord) that plugged into that via two prongs and could easily be popped in and out. It was the ancestor of the modern two-prong plug and socket.

Other inventors soon started coming up with improvements and safety features for this ancestral plug (like a third prong for grounding, insulation for the prongs, and plug shapes that ensured the plug was connected to the socket properly). Just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s more than one way to design a safe, convenient plug. All over the world, inventors, tinkerers, and engineers approached the task with their own spin, and we wound up with a bunch of different plugs and sockets that all started with the same basic idea, but were designed in very different ways.

At the time, there was no real reason they shouldn’t have been different. The world wasn’t as connected as it is today and electrical appliances weren’t as ubiquitous. International travel wasn’t convenient or attainable by most people, and even those that could hop across the pond probably weren’t going to be lugging a lamp or a fan with them. It didn’t really matter if someone half a world away could use the plug you were developing, so different countries and regions did things their own way and developed plugs and sockets according to local and national standards that often differed very much from each other.

By the time travel and appliance portability were at the point where standardization made sense, electrically wired homes and electric appliances were widespread, and switching to new plugs and sockets was an expensive proposition—which is not to say that a global standard doesn’t exist and a switch over can’t be done. In 1986, the International Electrotechnical Commission unveiled a “universal plug,” known as a Type N plug, that they hoped would become a widespread standard. So far, though, only Brazil and South Africa have adopted the design for their plugs and wall outlets.

For the foreseeable future we’re stuck with the hodgepodge of plugs and sockets that we have.* If you want to see what different countries use, see here and here. And if you’re wondering if one plug is actually better than the others, Tom Scott makes a pretty good case for the British design.

*If you’re abroad, it’s not just the plug and socket that will be different, but possibly the voltage and frequency of household electricity, which differs from region to region. Even if you have a plug adapter for when you travel, the voltage disparity means that your gadgets might not work as well, or could become damaged. The voltage split has its roots in the “War of the Currents,” which is an interesting story.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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