The collector: Oof Oud, Culemborg, Netherlands. Retired Reader in Genetics at the University of Amsterdam.
The collection: Plugs and sockets as used in homes and workshops.
The story behind the collection…
My interest in plugs and sockets started at university. The many trips to see colleagues abroad and congresses all over the world aroused my curiosity about the variety of incompatible types of plugs.
top row; Italy, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Europlug, France bottom row: Switzerland, Australia, Israel, Britain (old), Brazil, US
When my institute moved to a new building in the early 1990s, a technician found some old plugs and sockets. Knowing that I was not only interested in DNA and chromosomes, he dropped them on my desk, instead of the rubbish bin. It was at that time the idea was born to start collecting old and new plugs, sockets and related devices. Thereafter my trips included visits to hardware shops. That laid the foundation of a collection, which now holds several hundreds of items, stored in transparent plastic boxes.
4 x US plugs
When looking for missing plugs in a small shop in the States I told the shopkeeper that I was collecting plugs from all over the world. He was convinced that I was fooling him. Why should there be another system other than the US flat blade plug? He was hardly able to grasp the fact that worldwide there are at least twelve different standards of domestic plugs. Nearly each standard type has several variants, often electrical current dependent. Sometimes there are also non-standard plugs, meant for special purposes. The variety of plugs in the US is unsurpassed. There are 36 different types for 110 to 600 volt in combination with currents between 15 and 60A. Moreover, for nearly each of the 36 types also twist-lock versions are available. A collector’s gold mine.
Universal, multi US and New Zealand sockets
Homes were initially hard wired; electricity was only used for illumination. In the 1910s portable lamps and electrical home appliances became available. They generated the need of plugs and outlets. After a fierce competition with Edison, Hubbell’s flat blade plug became the US standard. In Europe plugs with round pins became popular. Size and spacing of pins have always been different between Britain (General Electric Company) and continental Europa (Siemens). The differences between countries in Europe started when earthed circuits were introduced. Werner von Siemens designed plugs with earth clips (Schuko system). Many European countries are still using the system. For technical and geopolitical reasons France, Switzerland, Italy and Denmark developed their own three pin plug standard. After World War 2 Britain changed its wiring system which necessitated the introduction of fused plugs. Countries in South America, Africa and Asia were electrified by American and European companies. Australia initially used a mix of (old) British and US plugs, but finally chose a cheap and easy to make plug, based on one of the American flat blade variants.
Bticino 'corner' plugs
Collectors like diversity, but companies producing electrical equipment and frustrated travellers prefer a single world standard. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has developed such standards for 115 and 230 volts. However, a worldwide standardization seems unlikely. It would be a very expensive operation that would take decades to become effective, and there is no doubt that countries may have other objections. Up to now only two countries have adopted the IEC standard: Brazil and South-Africa.
Plugs and sockets have to fulfill all applicable technical and safety requirements. That severely limits the freedom of a designer. Although function is the dominating factor, occasionally form and function go hand in hand. In this respect I like the Italian ‘Corner’ models made by Bticino. They combine an elegant, austere look with versatility. Pin position is easily adaptable. Another outstanding example is the EVOline Schuko plug introduced in 2010 by Schulte Elektrotechnik (Germany). It is an ultra slim design; very different from the boring, bulky standard Schuko plugs. EVOline plugs can be easily be removed from a socket by using the thin plate as a lever.
Other favourites are Swiss plugs. They have an optimal combination of elegancy, size and safety features. It is not without reason that the IEC international 230V standard plug is largely a copy of the Swiss design.
Swiss socket & plug Dorman & Smith (UK fused pin)
With respect to obsolete systems the technical design of Dorman & Smith plugs is noteworthy. Post WW2 British plugs must have a fuse. To keep the plug simple, D&S introduced a - detachable - fuse as live pin. A brilliant idea, but unfortunately its construction could not prevent that occasionally the fused pin might stay behind in the socket. Removing the fuse, which was electrically live, was a risky job!
Modern and classic Schuko plug EVOline plug and socket
Curiosity - a prime quality in science - was the main reason to start collecting and documenting plugs and sockets. Ordinary objects that are used on a day-to-day basis by everyone are seldom conserved. In an attempt to keep the memory of historic and current models alive, I have launched a Digital Museum of Plugs and Sockets. The website has also proven to be valuable in contacting people who like helping me with information or missing objects. Several enthusiasts have checked the attic of their (grand)parents house and sent me valuable obsolete specimens. Missing plugs and sockets are still most welcome!
Polish, Swiss, French and 3 British Standard sockets
All images © Oof Oud and used with his kind permission.