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  • Writer's pictureManitoba Electrical Museum

The History of International Voltages

Have you ever wondered why different countries use different electrical voltages and plugs?

North America was highly advanced in electrical science in the 1880s and became electrified faster than other continents. In fact, the world’s first modern power transmission grids were built in Manhattan, New York and Menlo Park, Jew Jersey. The technology of the time, particularly for Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, was developed to work with a power grid system designed for 110 volts (this voltage increased to 115V in the 1930s, and then to 120V in the late 60s). As technology improved, higher voltage grid systems were chosen for their efficiency and adopted in other parts of the world.

Today, the majority of the world’s population connected to the electrical grid uses between 220 and 240 volts, but the North American system remains at 120V. There were debates in the 1950s on changing the North American grid system to 230V, but this was never implemented due to the cost and difficulty.

Voltages and Frequencies (Hz) Worldwide

Voltages and Frequencies (Hz) Worldwide

Electrical Safety and International Travel

As COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, many of us have started to plan for international travel. Here at the Electrical Museum, we want to remind all travelers to be safe when using international outlets.

Be mindful that international outlets may use:

1) Different plugs.

2) Different voltages/frequencies (Hz)

You may require a travel adaptor to allow your plugs to fit into international outlets. For your safety, never force the incorrect plug into an outlet.

It’s dangerous if you plug an electrical device in, like a hair dryer, that doesn’t run on the same voltage. Much of our technology nowadays allows for electronics to be used with a range of voltages, but it’s still important to check your electrical devices before you travel. If you’re device does not run on the voltage at your destination, you may require a portable transformer.

Here is an example of what happens when you use appliances with the wrong voltage in another country. This blender was rated for 120 volts and used in a country with 240 volts.

Wrong Voltage, Wrong Country

Find this temporary display about The History of International Voltages on the lower level of our museum. Try out our International Outlet Challenge and see if you can match the plug to the right outlet!

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