Co.Design

Why Britain Has The Best Wall Sockets On Earth

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from the design of the U.K. wall plug.

Anyone who has traveled to the United Kingdom has probably marveled at the imperial bulk of the standard U.K. wall plug. With three chunky, rectangular pins, the design at first glance seems almost ridiculously inefficient, especially compared to the svelte footprints of the U.S. and European wall plugs, which manage to get juice to your electronics in under half the space.

But first impressions can be deceiving. In fact, as Tom Scott explains in a new video, the U.K. wall plug is a design classic that is substantially safer than any other plug design on Earth.

The main thing to know about the U.K. wall plug is that while it is bulkier than other designs, every ounce of that additional bulk makes the design safer. This is accomplished in four main ways:

Prong Design: Like standard U.S. grounded plugs, the U.K. wall plug has three prongs. But the design of these prongs makes it nearly impossible for you to shock yourself accidentally. Unlike in U.S. plugs, half of each prong is coated in insulation. Because of this, even if a plug is not fully inserted into a socket, touching the exposed part of the prongs can't give you a shock.

Socket Design: Any kid with a fork or a screwdriver can light his hair on fire in the United States by jamming it into a wall socket. Not so in England, where it would take at least two screwdrivers to manage the same calamitous trick. The U.K. plug is designed so that the grounding prong is slightly longer than the prongs responsible for transferring current. Like a tumbler in a lock, this grounding prong is responsible for "unlocking" the socket, giving access to the more dangerous live and neutral terminals.

Built-In Fuses: During World War II, a copper shortage resulted in the British government putting fuses into every plug, instead of wiring them directly. Although the built-in fuse adds bulk to the U.K. plug design, it's also safer: In case of an unexpected electrical surge, the fuse simply blows and the electricity shuts off, preventing fires, electrocutions, and other accidents. It also makes U.K. plugs easier to fix.

Circuit Design: Finally, there's the wiring inside the plug itself. Not only is it extremely intuitive, but it has been thoughtfully designed so that if the plug is tugged and the wiring frays, the live and neutral wires are the first to become disconnected, while the grounding wires—the ones responsible for preventing human electrocution when they come in contact with a circuit—are the last to fray.

It's a truly brilliant design. The only caveat is that, as with Lego, the rugged, bottom-heavy design of a U.K. plug makes it an almost scientifically perfect caltrop.

[H/T Metro]

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52 Comments

  • merynda835

    They're not the most attractive though and inconveniently chunky for mobile appliances. I'm happy with the slimmer 3-prong plugs that we use in Australia (and China) along with socket switches for safety.

  • Pranav Singanapalli

    This is silly. Columbusing the electric plug. I see all the same features in other plugs as well despite being half the size. I regularly use electrical goods purchased in UK, US, Germany, China, Japan and India. The only unique feature is the easily replaceable fuse, which if I am honest is only a good use of the plug's humongous size. Can someone care to explain why that was needed? I can't remember the last time I had to replace a fuse , the MCBs in my home seem to function quite well.

  • I can't remember the last time I was in a head on crash at 60 mph, but I'm thankful that I'm driving a car with a high safety rating. If only all cars were that safe...

  • HAHAHA. Seriously. Every British person knows that unique pain that comes from standing on an upturned plug. It hurts. Real bad. And you want me to believe they are the best in the world?!

  • Sigh... "Not so in England, where it would take at least two screwdrivers to manage the same calamitous trick. The U.K. plug..."

    The UK is not England alone. Geography lesson for our American cousins, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain consists of England, Scotland and Wales.

    And yes - the UK plug is definitely the best i've ever come across. When i first started travelling many moons ago I was shocked by the flimsy nature of most other plugs and sockets, and how they kind of hang loose. I can also confirm it is one of the most painful things to ever accidentally step on in bare feet...

  • Russell Evans

    The plugs in Australia are the same design apart from they are thinner flatter pins. earth is longer and opens the gates for the other two pins. Only difference is that we don't have the fuse....I miss the English fuse in my plugs ;o(

  • nikhil.js

    Why don't you guys use switches next to your plug points the way we do in India? It's an open invitation to danger to be plugging out or in to a live socket. Of course there's risks of sparks, damage fire and injury there. Here, our sockets are off until we switch them on ourselves. Much safer especially when there's water around. This also makes saving power a simple matter of flicking off a switch instead of having to pull plugs out and leaving them dangling.

  • Of course we have a switch on every socket! He was demonstrating on an extension cable (which often has its own, extra switch and maybe surge protector, which is useful for computers).

  • nikhil.js

    Why don't you guys use switches next to your plug points the way we do in India? It's an open invitation to danger to be plugging out or in to a live socket. Of course there's risks of sparks, damage fire and injury there. Here, our sockets are off until we switch them on ourselves. Much safer especially when there's water around. This also makes saving power a simple matter of flicking off a switch instead of having to pull plugs out and leaving them dangling.

  • Callum Nash

    We have switched on all our plug points so it's exactly the same. In the video, he is showing us an extension, which converts one mains plug socket into four. As you would still use the wall switch on the mains plug socket, you don't normally have switches on individual plugs on cheaper extensions. However, many extensions also have switches. I am suprised that anywhere would have plug sockets without switches, dangling plugs are thankfully not a problem we experience in GB!

  • jamieearle2002

    Running devices off of 115v is enough of a pain, let alone anything less. 240v is a proper voltage for proper devices.

  • Chris Pahl

    A couple of observations... First, the UK has twice the voltage (and twice the danger) of many other countries (notably the US which is 110ac). I guess it would be up to an actuary to determine whether the plug actually adds statistical safety. Combine this with the fact that neighboring countries in the EU, and international travelers often lack the UK plug. What this means is that people who visit the UK simply jam the euro plug into the UK plug outlet. This is completely unsafe, but it works! Are you going to have your portable electronic devices working when you leave the hotel room or not? I would factor this into the safety margin of such an usually large plug. Oh and have you seen the UK extender outlet strips? They're about as small as a mini. Happy travels!

  • Callum Nash

    yeah it is statistically safer. WAY safer. But that's crazy that people would stick in a european socket into it, if that's the case I am suprised we don't kill more tourists with our plug design. However, normally every floor in a building and every individual socket has it's own fuse so they are probably just ruining the lives of the maintenance people in the hotels they stay at :-) good thing though, creates more jobs!

  • Goran Genter

    That is completely untrue. Even though voltage is two times up, US electricity is more dangerous because it works on 60Hz, which is close to resonant frequency of hearth, meaning it is more likely to kill you than 50Hz. Alternating current is far more dangerous that direct current. You can take almost 5 times more ampers of direct current than alternating current.

  • Goran Genter

    In the same matter, very high frequency currents won't do anything to you, despite te extremely high voltage. The danger is in frequency, which interferes with hearth and nerves.