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Most home electrical appliances use a fixed power cord and have a on/off switch near the front. I was in many government electronics labs and that cord and socket was not used i.e HP test equipment.

Why did computer equipment appear to start the trend? Why did some computers, monitors, printers and other equipment use a replaceable power code with a non-standard socket? (Often the power switch was at the back)

enter image description here

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – wizzwizz4 Jun 29 '18 at 16:19
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The socket (or rather inlet) is most definitely standard, it’s a IEC 60320 C14 inlet. The standard was published in 1970. C6 and C8 are commonly used for laptop power supplies and smaller audio equipment.

There are a number of reasons to use this arrangement on computer power supplies, monitors, audio equipment etc., including:

  • using a standard inlet with a detachable cable means the same hardware can be sold around the world, with no modifications (in the past, changes would have been necessary for 110V v. 220/230V, but that’s no longer the case);
  • there’s enough room on the power supply to install an inlet rather than just a cable;
  • keeping the switch close to the power supply means there’s less high-voltage wiring, and the high-voltage plane can be kept as small as possible, and interrupted close to the point of entry (alternative arrangements which keep this in mind include mechanical connections between a front-mounted switch and the PSU);
  • the cables don’t have to be connected to home-use power sockets, they can be connected to UPSs or PDUs with type F outlets, or even PSUs with type F outlets (which were common in the 80s and early 90s: you plugged your monitor into the computer’s PSU).

Using a detachable cable is nice for users too since they can be easily replaced when damaged, and changed according to length requirements.

There are a number of reasons not to use this arrangement on other types of equipment such as TVs, washing machines etc., including:

  • regulatory requirements: toasters need high-temperature-resistant cabling, beyond what even a C16A-compliant cable can guarantee; washing machines and other wet environment equipment need need water-resistant cabling (which also places requirements on the sockets — they typically must be installed above a certain height); some countries require certain types of equipment to use non-removable ground connections;

  • regional variations for other reasons, whose economic impact dwarfs the considerations around cabling: for example TVs are region- and even country-specific (this also applies when considering regulations since regulations vary geographically);

  • for high-volume, low-margin items (which covers lots of integrated audio equipment, TVs etc. — although as mentioned above, domestic audio equipment commonly uses C8 inlets) the balance between the cost of a socket and the labour savings may be different.

Note that many retro systems had external power supplies with only a small connector on the system itself, and didn’t use C14 sockets at all.

(As an interesting aside, in some markets, e.g. the UK, it was common in the 70s and 80s for home equipment to be sold with only a power cable, and no plug — it was up to the buyer to install a plug, or have one installed.)

(Thanks to Muzer, PlasmaHH, Michael Harvey, TKK, and ErikF for their comments which helped improve this answer.)

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    Assuming this line of logic is correct, it seems that TV's of the time, toasters, refrigerators, washing machines, and home stereos would also have done the same? – jwzumwalt Jun 27 '18 at 8:10
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    Re toasters and washing machines, there are other regulations which apply: toasters need high-temperature-resistant wiring (I don’t think even C16 or C16A are sufficient), washing machines need water-resistant wiring. TVs and integrated stereos are extremely margin-sensitive and high-volume, so the extra cost of a socket doesn’t make up for the labour savings. – Stephen Kitt Jun 27 '18 at 8:14
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    In addition, TVs in those days were very region-specific anyway. The cost of adapting an NTSC 60Hz TV to work in PAL 50Hz areas, for example, in the 70s and 80s would probably have overshadowed the cost of changing the power cable. – Muzer Jun 27 '18 at 9:51
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    "in the past, changes would have been necessary for 110V v. 220/230V, but that’s no longer the case" And in the interim, before true (full range) 115/230VAC input supplies became common, you'd usually find a little switch on the back of the PSU that you'd have to set correctly. Set it to 115V in a 230V country? Time to buy a new PSU. Set it to 230V in a 115V country? I guess the computer wouldn't turn on, is about all... – a CVn Jun 27 '18 at 11:05
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    @Stephen Kitt: "the switch must be able to overcome the mechanical resistance created by the electrical current" I have been involved in electrical engineering and electronics for more than 50 years and I'm not sure what you mean by this. And isn't it 'electric current'? – Michael Harvey Jun 27 '18 at 15:44
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(This is about motivation (the why) of defining and adding a standard socket to devices and ment as an addition to Stephen Kitt's great explanation of the technical side - at some point a merge might be useful)

Most home electrical appliances use a fixed power cord and have a on/off switch near the front.

That's due the fact that for appliances sold in large numbers to the same (restricted) market, it's less costly to have fixed power cord.

Why did computer equipment appear to start the trend?

It's not just computer and measuring devices but many others that are sold to markets with different standards in plugs.

While there are only a small number of power standards regarding voltage and frequency that require different power supplies (before the switched PS that is), there are many different power plugs in use around the world - and most are mandatory by law or trade union standards in their region, thus can't be avoided.

Over the years, more than 30 different plugs for household usage did get some proliferation and about 15-20 are still in use. For a company with the intent to sell a product this would mean production and logistics for 15+ different versions of one device, just because of different power plugs. While this may be acceptable for huge markets like the US, Japan or Germany, it becomes expensive for smaller markets. If a product is also only sold in rather small numbers (not TVs, but measuring equipment), it's outright prohibitive.

So devices smaller markets where usually delivered just with the right power supply, but no plug at the end of the cable. In fact, this was even in medium sized markets standard until the early 1960s. After all, back then, no supermarket (if existing at all) was selling electronics, nor were there huge electronics markets around. To buy a toaster or TV one would buy at a local electrician or TV salesman - who in turn did fit the right plug before selling. Back then fixing a plug was something considered doable for everyone.

While this vanished (at least in large markets) over time due to increased volume, it stayed a problem with professional equipment. I still remember in the late 70s applying plugs to newly delivered measuring equipment as part of my job.

While mostly incompatible, some may interact with each other with some preparation. For example the French and German system of sockets can both be used by a single plug prepared for both sockets, as the difference is just how PE (protective ground) is handled (*1) and both ways can be made into the same shell. There are similar combinations for some other countries (*2), but this still leaves ~10 different plugs to support when a company intends worldwide sales.

The plug is based on a German VDE standard for 'Kaltgerätestecker' (Cold Device Plugs). German industry has a strong export orientation, even more so, that after the war Germany itself was only a small market without much buying power. The many different European plugs therefore were a serious issue for sales and production. Already in the early 1960s a standard was developed for several classes of devices, including the C13 now used with most PCs.

These intermediate couplings are structured around several (*3) features:

  • 2 or 3 wire
  • Current
  • Temperature

The C13 is defined as 3 wire (power+PE), up to 10A and maximum of 70 degree environmental temperature (at the plug).

Other well known ones are C1, the 'razor plug', 2 wire, 0.2A, or the C5 and C7, both at 2.5A with 2 (C7) or 3 (C5) wires. The C7 was quite common with home computers with integrated PS, while the C7 is today common with laptops or other low power devices with a need for PE.

All the plugs for the different (useful) combinations became different shapes, so no two could be exchanged by error. Basically an encoding of polarity, need for PE and material at the device.

While in itself adding cost, the usage of these intermediate couplings did greatly reduce overall cost and were an instant success over manufacturer-specific solutions. Already in 1970 this VDE 0623 became an IEC standard.

Why did some computers, monitors, printers and other equipment use a replaceable power code with a non-standard socket?

To start with, it's not non-standard, but a well known and widely used standard. Already way before small computers became a thing. It was just lesser known in the US where the market was large enough to justify not to use an intermediate connector.

Computers are a prime example for machines sold in many markets with (in the beginning) only a quite small number per plug region. And with today's just-in-time production and the need to keep costly storage of finished products low, it becomes even more important. A PC will no longer be built for a specific market, but as a general, worldwide sold unit, and only customized for a target country by adding the right language CD, Manuals and power cable.

In fact, even looking at the 'big 3' early computers, Apple II, Commodore PET and Tandy Model 1, already shows the difference. Tandy and Commodore used a fixed cable, fine for the domestic market, while Apple did decide to use a switchable PS with C14 socket (for C13 plug). This decision made it quite easy to start worldwide sales. Where Tandy only had rather small sales outside the US (or better the 110V/60Hz) world and Commodore did set up factories in other countries, Apple could start worldwide sales right away from California (and later from their second plant in Eire).

One may guess that it was part thru Woz' desire to make use of a good PS, thus a switching one, but maybe more his acquaintance with professional measuring equipment, where power selectable PS and plugs at the device where already standard.

(Often the power switch was at the back)

That again is to save costs. Due the integration of switch and socket into one pre-made unit, no additional cabling is needed. The one shown in the picture even integrates a fuse, even more simplifying design and saving cost. Another benefit is that the wiring inside the computer (after the switch/socket unit, until the PS that is) is already switched, so no further protection for a hot wire even when switched off is need. And that's not only a good idea, but some countries would require additional measures for such a configuration, which thus can easy be avoided. A classic win-win in production.


*1 - Several European sockets are compatible in size, diameter and distance of the two main connectors, jut the way PE is handled differs. The French/German are also compatible in the defined area for the shell.

*2 - Even more so when it's just about two prong connections for devices that don't need PE (encapsulated or Class II devices), leading to the so called Europlug covering many more countries.

*3 - There are more deviations, like resistance to acid and spark-free plugging that are not really relevant here - including voltage, but all connectors we usually have are certified for 400V, so way above all regular two wire mains.

  • The AT form factor has a switch at the front of the case with 110/220V. I'm glad Intel did away with that when they specified the ATX form factor. – Alexander Jun 29 '18 at 8:32
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    Commodore used whatever it could get cheapest. At TPUG, we recently opened up two PET 2001s: they had entirely different power connectors and datasettes despite being close serial numbers – scruss Jun 29 '18 at 9:37
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The original PC was made by IBM

The first device I ever saw with this style of power cord was an IBM Selectric typewriter. The "I" in "IBM" stands for "International", and this allowed them to make the same typewriter work with different countries' power cords. So, when they got around to making what was widely considered the next generation of typewriter (or word processor), of course they continued to use the same system.

  • I think this is key, afaict it was not computers in general that popularised IEC inlets, it was the IBM PC and compatibles/lookalikes. – Peter Green Jun 27 '18 at 20:40
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    @PeterGreen These connectors where already in wide use for next to all kinds of electrics, years before the PC became available. – Raffzahn Jun 27 '18 at 20:41
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    Also, The IBM PC wasn't even close to being the first home computer. Apple II's and TRS-80's (to name a couple of popular early platforms) had removable power cords years before the PC was a dream in an engineer's head. The Atari VCS (later 2600) in 1977 had them too. By the PC's day, that was just a thing computers had. – T.E.D. Jun 28 '18 at 13:33
  • Doesn't explain why my Apple ][ had one. The Apple predated the IBM PC by four years. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jun 29 '18 at 6:58
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    @Harper Did the Apple predate the IBM Selectric typewriter? – Monty Harder Jul 11 '18 at 18:14
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A lot of valid considerations before me, and here is another one: Computers, and especially servers are usually installed in racks or spaces where it is easier to first install/mount the server and then connect the power cable to it. Also a lot of people liked to tinker with their computers (it was common thing 15 years ago, but nowadays probably not so much). Common sense dictates you have to be able to disconnect any power cord easily before tinkering and in a lot of situations it is easier done at the back-plane of the computer/server, instead of searching the socket/PDU, which may be buried somewhere deep/behind the rack. People open and tinker a lot less with ovens, washing machines, etc.

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    And at the same time, server racks often have wiring channels, and when replacing the server it is often easier to leave all of the wire management alone (esp if it has been secured wtih zip ties, etc) and simply re-use the already in place cables. – ivanivan Jun 28 '18 at 16:09
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Smaller home appliances don't use such a socked to save on the price. Many don't even require grounding, so they get a cheaper two-wire power cord, for which such a socket would be an overkill.

Yet other, bigger home appliances have strict safety standards, which exclude the use of the above power cord socket. Kitchen and bathroom appliances in particular require a ground connection fixed with a screw, so it cannot accidentally come loose:

enter image description here

Another case of safety requirements incompatible with the socket are appliances which can be expected to contact with water: a fixed power cord is essentially waterproof, while a socket isn't.

  • C14-plugs guarantee that the earth connection will be made before phases, and break after phases. The earth pin is slightly longer, so having a live apparatus with power, but not earth is not possible. This is as safe as attaching the earth with a screw. – vidarlo Jun 27 '18 at 14:06
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    @DmitryGrigoryev Why is it not as safe? The live wire will be disconnected before ground wire. There might be reasons, such as ESD protection, for why you want to disconnect cable but not ground, but this is not a safety reason. – vidarlo Jun 27 '18 at 15:18
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    @supercat - I've never seen such a plug, and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't meet the requirements of the standard. The neutral and live pins are shielded, the earth pin must be either entirely plastic (for an insulated device) or entirely metal. – Jules Jun 27 '18 at 16:29
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    @supercat - as to why it was designed this way, note that the plastic sheathing is a feature that was retrospectively added to an existing standard -- as appliances are more often changed than fixed wiring, putting it on the appliance side will get the advantages to more people faster. – Jules Jun 27 '18 at 16:31
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    @vidarlo large production volume and essentially stationary life apply to computers as well. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 27 '18 at 20:04
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Why?

It was cheaper for parts and labour to build this way for a global market to standardize designs, parts and inventory for power supplies. "Economies of Scale"

In 1970 they used dual primary windings with an insert slider switch to set the power line voltage prior to shipment or 1st installation to select 120/240Vac. The standard socket is the IEC 60320 C14 socket and mated with any cordset for the country of use.

We just called them IEC cordsets and they were also common to electronic lab instruments. enter image description here

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In office and industrial environments the power cabling is often already installed, so users prefer to re-use the existing power cable by just plugging it in to a new machine when they upgrade. As Arvo points out, UPS units often use this type of cabling too.

Having a socket also helps sell the same hardware in different markets, only needing to supply the correct power cable with suitable plug rather than an entirely different model of hardware.

Appliances often have stricter rules for safety reasons, e.g. because they are moved around a detachable cable might come loose. PCs don't have that issue.

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