How simple is a lightbulb?

Light globes are not so simple. Photo: Domino Postiglione

Some years ago in a busted-up African nation I found myself flummoxed by not-very modern technology, though it was an embarrassingly paltry problem compared with the agonies being experienced by the local inhabitants.

Armed with a big old satellite phone in a suitcase, its lid doubling as the dish that sought a signal from the heavens, I needed a very long electrical extension cable to power it up in a clearing where reception would be free of the interference of trees in order to file my stories about horror.

I had only one short cable. I went around begging from other correspondents – Belgians, an American, a South African and an Englishman – to assemble enough cords to reach from the single available power plug in a seedy bar to an outdoor area cleared for soccer a hundred metres away.

None of the sockets on the end of the cables matched. My Australian three-pronged socket was entirely different to the giant affair from England, the Belgian three-pin job wouldn't connect with the American two-slotter and the South African connection was based on some old British Empire standard used just about nowhere else.

It took much wrangling with borrowed adaptors and messing around with a Swiss Army knife and gaffer tape before the cobbled-together intercontinental system worked.

Nothing but first-world difficulties in a third world nation, but you've likely experienced something of the problem yourself if you’ve done any international travel. Try to plug in your phone, computer or electric razor and you need to have packed an adaptor, and it better be one of those that matches up with all the countries you are visiting.

I'm all for diversity, but a world that can't agree on a standardised power socket seems a spark or two short of globalised, let alone united. And talking about sparking, better check if your device runs on 110-120 volts, which is used in North America, or 220-240 volts, which you'll find in most of the rest of the world.

Back home, Australia's recent much-discussed Commission of Audit courageously suggests turning more than a century of federalism on its head to give our frequently warring states more responsibility in an attempt to streamline decision-making and cut duplication between the Commonwealth and the states. Education, health care ... all solved.

Good luck with that. Australia took the best part of a century to standardise its railways, and the states have each long considered it a policy failure if water in their river systems actually flows across their border into the next state. It seems a miracle you can use the same power plug in Victoria and Western Australia.

It's the nature of competing dominions, pretty clearly, to reach wildly differing views about what's superior, and to stick stubbornly with those views.

How else to explain that part of the world thinks it's best to drive on the right hand-side of the road and the other part insists that you ought to motor along on the left?

Blow a light globe, rush off to the supermarket and you're  likely to bring home a bulb on a bayonet mount only to discover your lamp requires a screw-in globe.

While you're changing the lightbulb, maybe you'll be moved to more ambitious DIY work. But some fool has screwed the door hinges into the frame with slotted screws, another fool has painted over them and you're faced with trying to remove them with a simple slotted flathead screwdriver. The blade will slip and you're going to curse, probably bark your knuckles and very likely fail at the task.

Why are there such things as flathead slotted screws when the clearly more efficient and easier-to-shift Phillips head screw was invented in the 1930s?

Neither a flathead nor Phillips head screwdriver will be worth a damn to you, however, if you've brought home a flatpacked table or chest of drawers or a bed. Nope. You'll have to use a hex key, otherwise known as an Allen key, and probably several of them in varied sizes.

If hex keys are so terrific that Ikea and its competitors all think they are the go, why don't we screw our doors into their frames with 'em, and everything else, instead of having to mess about with flathead and Phillips head screwdrivers?

While we're at it, what was wrong with a couple of simple taps above the sink or in the shower, the hot one on the left, the cold on the right? You can spend half the morning in a sleek hotel room trying to figure out how to turn on the water, let alone mix it to the right temperature.

There are historical, economic and marketing reasons behind all these conundrums, of course.

North America's near-unique 110-120 volt electric power system is used simply because that's the voltage Thomas Edison settled on when he starting lighting up America, and the cost of changing it would have been monstrous once the rest of the world decided that 220-240 volts gave more bang for your buck. And power sockets evolved before most people began travelling with electrical devices, so it didn't matter that the wall plugs weren't the same everywhere. England went with its weird giant plugs because there was a shortage of copper after World War II, so instead of wiring each socket to a central fuseboard, each plug had its own fuse, saving lots of copper wire.

Mere niggles, we know.

But if the world can't agree on such basics, what chance the big stuff?