The Great British Plug gets a makeover

Posted on by Mike Evans

The new folding mu plug has won design awards and is a decided improvement on the traditional three-pin monster.The new folding version of the British three-pin plug is a step in the right direction, albeit at an eye-watering £25 ($40). Anything that tames the monster that is the British plug has to be welcomed.

The Great British socket, usually with a large switch, is perhaps the safest in the world. It is certainly the largestI have written before about the Great British Plug and said the unthinkable: that we would be better off with the European system which is far more consumer friendly. This system allows substantial earthed plugs to coexist with small two-pin units which are ideal for today’s gadgets and all low-consumption devices that do not need an earth.

The German Schuko plug, with earth, is used in many European countries. It offers safety (because of the recessed socket which makes it impossible to touch a live contact) but doubles for use with small two-pin plugs fitted to low-consumption gadgets.There have been moves by the meddlesome EU to force Britain to change over to the now-favoured German system, but the cost, the decades-long transition and the upset to manufacture of electrical goods (which all now come fitted with an integral plug) would be unacceptable.

In fact, changing over would be almost as disruptive as moving to driving on the wrong side of the road, as people do in the USA and some other countries. As it happens, there’s not much chance of that. Driving on the left is just so much logical; it ensures your sword arm is free to deal with aggressive oncoming traffic.

The current over-engineered British plug and its industrial-strength wall socket is not only the largest in the world, it is the safest. We cannot quibble with that. The longer square earth pin doubles as an unlocking device for the covers over the socket’s live and neutral slots. No sticking a bent coat hanger in this set up. So ten out of ten for safety.

It dates back to 1946, a time when this massive new connector was definitely smaller than anything it was attached to. Now the converse is the case, and here is the nub of the problem. Buy a gadget in Britain and the plug will likely weigh more than the gadget.

Until the 1950s, Britain had a hotch potch of at least five different systems. At the bottom of the safety pile was the small bayonet plug that could be inserted into any light fitting. It was not uncommon to see an electric iron or a two-bar fire plugged into the overhead central light fitting. Homes often had a criss-cross of cables dangling from chandeliers.

Before the current monster plug, Britain had three sizes of three-pin plug. From left to right, 10-amp, 5-amp and 3-amp. The latter was still being used for room lighting circuits until the 1990s. It was killed off unnecessarily by the safety brigade. I continue to fight a rear-guard action because this little system is just so sensible.Next was the simple, unprotected round-pin two-pin plug rated at 5 amps. It has a legacy in shaver sockets fitted in bathrooms even today. In addition there were three versions of the round 3-pin plug: A big 10-amp affair, a middle-sized 5-amper and a dinky little 3amp three-pin plug intended for lighting circuits.

My house still has supplementary three-pin mini sockets for lamps, controlled from a switch near the entrance door. This is very sensible and such sockets were still being installed up ten years ago when the dead hand of ‘Elf and Safety put a stop to it.

With all these types of plugs—and the current monster didn’t become universal until the ’80s—we lived for three decades with a transitional mishmash of standards. Unsurprisingly, most appliances and gadgets between 1950 and 1980 were supplied with a bare wire and you had to buy a suitable plug and fit it yourself.

The current plug and heavy-duty wiring system is undoubtedly safe. Rated at 13-amps, it is robust enough for washing machines, dryers and smaller ovens. A selection of 1, 3, 5, 10 and 13-amp colour-coded fused cartridges are inserted into the plug as required to cope with all eventualities.

It is undoubtedly safe, but not convenient.

As I said, the EU is meddling and wants us to change to their sockets and plugs. Even more drastic, they want a change to the writing system. In the UK we use a ring main system with sockets arranged on a cable ring. With our individually fused plugs this is perfectly safe.

In Europe, where individual plugs are not fused, every socket has to be wired back to the main distribution board where it is protected by a trip switch. To change to the European system would involve not just changing sockets and plugs, it would mandate completely rewiring all buildings.

For the moment, though, there will be no change. Much as I prefer the European system because of its smaller plugs and the ability also to use unearthed two-pin plugs, the enormous cost of rewiring British households is not likely to find favour in the current economic conditions.

For a rundown on world power sockets and plugs see this fascinating Wikipedia article.

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