Why Are Electrical Plugs Different in Europe?

Daisy-Daisy/iStock via Getty Images
Daisy-Daisy/iStock via Getty Images

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.

Fish Tube: How the 'Salmon Cannon' Works and Why It's Important

PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images
PerfectStills/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past week, you’ve certainly come across footage of wildlife conservationists stuffing salmon into a giant plastic tube and shuttling them over obstacles. It’s so bizarre—even by the already loose standards of the web—that it briefly ignited discussions over fish welfare, its purpose, and the seeming desire of people to be similarly transported through a pneumatic tunnel into a new life.

Naturally, the “salmon cannon” has a mission beyond amusing the internet. The system was created by Whooshh Innovations, a company that essentially adopted the same kind of transportation system featuring pressurized tubing that's used in banking. Initially, the system was intended to transport fruit over long distances without bruising. At some point, engineers figured they could do the same for fish.

The fish payload is secured at the entrance of the tube—acceptable species can weigh up to 34 pounds—and moves through a smooth, soft plastic tube that conforms to their body shape. Air pressure behind them keeps them moving. The fish are jettisoned between 16 and 26 feet per second to a new location, where they emerge relatively unscathed. Because there’s no need for a water column, the tubing can cover most terrain at virtually any height.

The tubing solution is a human answer to a human problem: dams. With fish largely confined to still bodies of water thanks to dams and facing obstacles swimming upstream to migrate and spawn, fish need some kind of assistance. In the past, “fish ladders” have helped fish move upstream by providing ascending steps they can flop on, but not all fish can navigate such terrain. Another system, trapping and hauling fish like cargo, results in disoriented fish who can even forget how to swim. The Whooshh system, which has been in used in Washington state for at least five years, allows for expedient fish export with an injury rate as little as 3 percent, although study results have varied.

The video features manual insertion of the fish. In the wild, Whooshh counts on fish making semi-voluntary entries into the tubing. Once they swim into an enclosure, they’re curious enough about the tube to go inside.

If all goes well, the system could help salmon be reintroduced to the Upper Columbia River in Washington, where the population has been depleted by dams. Testing of the device there is awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

12 Facts About Netflix, Recommended For You

kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus
kasinv/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Netflix has become the world’s intravenous line for filmed entertainment. And like any media empire, it has a few stories of its own to tell. Take a look at some lesser-known, non-buffering facts about the streaming giant.

1. Early Netflix subscribers got a lot of Chinese pornography.

Addict man at computer laptop watching porn internet addiction concept
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In 1998, Netflix was still in the business of selling as well as renting DVDs. To try and offer consumers something new, co-founder Marc Randolph decided to offer footage of President Bill Clinton’s Grand Jury testimony about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky. But according to the book Netflixed, the duplicating house had a mix-up: out of the 1000 customers who ordered Clinton's interview, a few hundred received discs full of hardcore Chinese pornography.

2. Netflix was originally called Kibble.

Choosing a name for the company was a drawn-out process. Directpix.com, Replay.com, and other names were considered; so was Luna.com, which was the name of Randolph’s dog. When the company was being incorporated, he named it Kibble.com until they could decide on something permanent.

3. Netflix executives used to make house calls.

From the beginning, Netflix has been preoccupied with seeing how users interact with its software in order to select titles. In the late 1990s, subscribers near the company’s location in Los Gatos, California were reached via telephone and asked a series of questions. Then staffers would ask if they could stop by to watch them use the site. Surprisingly, most agreed. Netflix brought them coffee, a small investment for gaining valuable information about their usage.

4. Netflix got Dennis Quaid to sing.

For a 2006-2007 publicity tour, Netflix decided to screen films in thematically-correct locations: For example, Field of Dreams was shown in the “real” Iowa cornfield-slash-baseball diamond featured in the movie. But the company also wanted actors to make appearances. Their approach: offer to let those with bands perform for the crowds. Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, and Kevin Bacon all agreed to the barter deal. Quaid and his band, The Sharks, played in New Orleans before a screening of his film The Big Easy.

5. Netflix has made a science out of spoilers.

Because so much of Netflix’s high-profile content can be “binged” in a single weekend, the company commissioned cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to examine how spoilers affect a person’s viewing habits. McCracken identified classifications of spoiler-prone people by whether they ruin a plot twist intentionally or hold it over others. (Some people are “Coded Spoilers,” too self-aware to let anything slip. These people are your friends.) His verdict? Some people enjoy the power they get from having knowledge of spoilers. But if a show is good enough, knowing about key scenes won't dissuade viewers from watching.

6. Netflix staffers think you decide on a movie in two minutes.

Apple iPad displaying Netflix app, Black with Reflection
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Netflix spends more than $150 million on improving their recommendation system every year, trying to arrange selections based on what they think you might like. That kind of personalized menu is necessary: The company estimates that users spend only two minutes browsing for a title before choosing one or opting for another diversion entirely.

7. Netflix staffers also think you might be kind of a liar. 

You can stop trying to impress Netflix with the streaming version of keeping Ulysses on your coffee table. In a 2013 WIRED interview, Carlos Gomez-Uribe—the company's vice president of product innovation from 2010 to 2016—noted that viewers often report viewing documentaries or esoteric foreign movies. “But in practice,” he said, “that doesn’t happen very much.”

8. the first "netflix original" was an abstract test footage short.

In order to test frame rates and how their streaming service handles different kinds of content, Netflix produced 11 minutes of test footage in 2011 that can be viewed by typing “example show” in their search engine. Cut together (as seen above), the shorts become a very strange, very abstract art film, with an unidentified man juggling and reciting Shakespeare. (But not, sadly, juggling while reciting Shakespeare.)

9. Netflix binge-watching might correlate with depression. 

A 2015 study by the University of Texas found that respondents who claimed to binge Netflix shows were more likely to suffer from depression, lack of self-control, or loneliness. The good news? The sample group was small—only 316 people—and the university’s definition of “binge-watching” was as low as two episodes. Amateurs. 

10. There’s a secret Netflix menu.

Netflix website showing on screen laptop with macbook pro at cafe
wutwhanfoto/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

No, not that kind of secret menu. Pressing Shift + Alt + a left mouse click brings up a troubleshooting menu that allows you to adjust the bit rate of a stream so it doesn’t buffer. (On a Mac, it's Shift + Option + click.) The picture quality won’t be as good, but it’s better than a pixelated Demogorgon.

11. There was once a glitch in the Netflix matrix. 

In 2014, Netflix’s content descriptions became odd amalgamations of two different titles to create one completely nonsensical listing. The summaries were quickly fixed, but not before someone took several screen shots of the mishaps.

12. You'll soon be able to stream Netflix in a Tesla.


Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

In July 2019, Tesla founder Elon Musk informed Tesla owners they would soon be able to stream both Netflix and YouTube in their cars, an attractive option for anyone looking to keep passengers occupied. But there's a catch: The services only work when the cars are parked. The feature will be available in newer-model cars at a date to be determined.

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