Geek Trivia

Until Legislation In The 1990s Mandated It, British Appliances Rarely Came With?

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An early British GEC 2-pin plug and socket.
GE/Public Domain

Answer: Plugs

In what will most likely seem a great curiosity to American readers, British appliances did not come with what we can all agree is the most basic of items, a plug, before legislation passed in 1992 mandated it.

In almost every case when you purchased an electrical appliance big or small, be it a washing machine, microwave, toaster, or lamp, you would also separately purchase a plug and, upon returning home, you would sit down with a screwdriver and wire the electrical plug to the cord yourself.

Viewing this British ritual from the lens of the early 21st century, it seems almost absurd (especially to readers in a very litigious country like the United States). What kind of company would entrust the consumer to wire their own electrical appliance and why? The answer is one part practicality and one part British thrift and pride.

Prior to World War II, residential and commercial electrical systems were not standardized. As a result, it was quite possible that based on the age and location of a given residence or business that the electrical outlets therein would have different prong patterns and sizing. Because of these variances, it was impractical to ship appliances with plugs pre-attached because the consumer would often have to strip the plug off and reattach a plug suitable to their location anyway. Instead, companies shipped products with a power cord that terminated in bare wiring and the consumer would wire their own plug on after bringing the product home.

After World War II when the electrical systems across the country were standardized to a national code, the practice of shipping products without a power plug continued. For many British citizens, it was a point of pride and tradition to wire their own appliances (and they hardly saw it as unusual to do so). Further, they regarded pre-wired appliances as overpriced because they assumed the expense of performing the wiring at the factory would be passed along to them. Up until the early 1990s, around 80 percent of all electrical devices in Britain were sold with a bare wire.

It wasn’t until consumer protection groups, in the wake of several accidents stemming from the practice of self-fitting electrical plugs, applied pressure to the government that mandates were put in place ensuring all consumer products shipped with the plugs pre-wired.

Now while that all might seem very backward to an outside observer, we can say one thing with certainty: the present incarnation of the British power plug is quite a safe and clever little design. The ground pin on the plug is slightly longer than the power pins and serves as a safety mechanism that opens shutters covering the socket as the plug is inserted (as such, it is very difficult for children to stick fingers or objects into the outlet); this is a feature uncommon in other countries and practically unheard of in the United States.

Further, British plugs have fuses built into the plug itself (whereas in the United States, the typical design is for the fuse/circuit breaker for the entire circuit to act as a protective measure and fused plugs are fairly uncommon). So while there may have been a century of do-it-yourself home wiring that more than certainly contributed to a few accidents, when all was said and done, the British ended up with a very well designed and safe electrical plug (that you no longer have to install yourself).