Did electrical appliances and items regularly explode in the past?

Many senior citizens I’ve met are obsessed about turning every electrical item off when they step away from it for more than a few minutes – lamps, televisions, you name it. I’ve met some older people who unplug EVERYTHING in their home, except the refrigerator, when they leave for more than a few days. Why? “They could catch on fire” and “They could explode”.

So, I’m wondering … in the good 'ol days, did electrical appliances, clocks, radios, lamps and so on combust with great regularity?

Yes. Well, not explode so much as start fires. Back then, the NEC was a mere twinkle in the eye of some yet-to-be-born EE and electrical standards were nowhere near as stringent as today. UL? ETL? Never heard of 'em. I have personally seen some frightening appliances from the 30’s and 40’s that would curl your hair (almost literally!) Grounds were almost unheard-of, polarized plugs didn’t exist yet and double insulated equipment was decades in the future. If I’d lived back then, I’d be wary of electrical stuff to this day, too.

My brother, who lives in Mexico, has noted that roughly once a week some house or another explodes or catches on fire within view of his place (he lives up on a hill.) So quite obviously building standards and quality can have a pretty big impact.

I don’t know if they exploded, but early electrical appliances were sometimes designed in a way that would make an insurance underwriter faint. Once I got my hands on a small book about the history electrical applications in daily life, and one item I remember was a cooking pot where you plugged a cord in at the end of the handle.

Tubes in televisions certainly failed, and maybe overheating was the culprit sometimes.

I’ve always wondered why homes are not built with a master switch. Maybe a recessed panel near the front door from where a throw of a switch would shut off electricity, gas, and water. Appliances could be built with this in mind (battery back up to run clocks, etc).

And no, I do not unplug stuff when I leave the house. :wink:

Almost on-topic. Air Force people are compulsive about unplugging stuff. Army people are not. It took some getting used to.

When did polorized plugs start coming into being. I recall being a kid and both sides of the plugs were the same. Now you can only plug something in one way

Many older TVs had chassis that had to be finalists in the “worst design ideas of all time” competition. In order to save few bucks, there was no transformer - the chassis was connected directly to one side of the line. Since there was also no polarized plugs, this meant that 50% of the time you had a chassis that was “hot” with respect to ground. This was sure to cause excitement when your kids removed the knobs, and you needed to use a needlenose pliers to change the channel.

Not to mention that cords and plugs were made of (at best) hard rubber. Over time the rubber dried out and began to crack. Frayed cords and plugs > short circuits > fires.

One of the fond memories of baby boomers’ childhoods was watching their parents dig out the Christmas lights every year, and inspecting the cords and plugs for all manner of potential disasters.

What is it that’s so outlandish about such an item? Lots of cooking devices use an electrical plug (crock pots, steamers, hot pots, electric skillets, electric kettles).

Don’t most houses have a master electric switch (on the breaker) and valves on the gas and water mains? They’re usually not very hard to get to, in any house I’ve ever lived.

My guess is that if that type of power cord set-up developes a short, it’s more dangerous because its plugged in to the one place the user is most likely to grab.

I don’t remember when, maybe late 70’s/early 80’s? It ensures that the grounding in the appliance matches the grounding in the house circuit. Why this was not considered essential earlier I cannot tell you.

My wife picked up a few things in the backwards sticks where she grew up. Unplugging everything is one of those…because she learned at her father’s knee that electricity can’t be trusted and is going to burn your house down when you aren’t looking.
She also calls it a “foot feed”… a quaint throwback to distinguish between accelerators that were on the steering column and those new-fangled ones that are on the floor. shes in her early 40s

It wasn’t unusual for toasters to start on fire. There were virtually no thermal fuses in appliances. The wiring was some woven fabric and paper with something like tar covering it. It wasn’t a plastic sheath extruded around the wire. Why the terrible electric standards. The standards reflect about how standards for other things were at the same time. Power was just reach a lot of the masses. Technology advanced quit a bit.

Sure, but they are not designed to be used daily. What I’m thinking of is a panel by the door that would routinely be shut off.

Why would you want to routinely shut off your power, water and gas? I like having the refrigerator, heat, AC, etc. running while I’m not home.

Another thing that could have come into play with electrical devices made up into the late 60’s is that any “electronic” device used vacuum tubes. Items like radios and televisons were often designed with an instant on feature that essentially left the device consuming more wattage than two toasters and producing a huge amount of heat. The capacitors in these things were often made of oily materials that could (and did) catch fire.

Also, the generation that grew up during the depression, and war shortages that followed may have just been loathe to “waste” electricity that they would have to pay for…


I think polarized receptacles were developed rather early on. I am at present seriously remodeling a house built in 1926. I’m fairly confident that an old ceramic duplex receptacle I removed a few weeks back was original to the house and it was polarized. (The knob-and-tube wiring certainly is - the hot wires have whiteish insulation - the earliest k&t wiring was all the same color).

My impression is that manufacturers were slow to put polarized plugs on appliances. Some items are still unpolarized. Chargers, for example. With them, usually the only thing the incoming power “sees” is the primary side of a step-down transformer, and transformers just don’t care which way you connect them.

By “polarized” we don’t mean that the hot side is one color and neutral another. Outlets have ground connected to one side, and polarized plugs and outlets force you to plug it in so that the appliance ground goes to the receptacle ground.

In the pre-polarized-plug days I had guitar amps with two-prong plugs and sometimes they would hum, and the textbook solution was to turn the plug around to align the grounds.