Opinion: A shocking travel experience


By Ward Degler

Those of you who have traveled abroad know that much of the world uses 220-volt electricity. To use your American hair dryer, you need one of those handy-dandy converter things that reduces 220 to 110. An easy fix.

On the other hand, some places beyond our borders have good old American-style 110-volt electricity. But this often comes in 50-hertz current instead of good old American-style 60-hertz current.

For your hair dryer, that just means it will hum along at a medium whir instead of a high-pitched whir. For other devices, however, it’s complicated.

When I was in the Army – back in the dark ages of my youth – I was stationed in Germany at the big American hospital in Landstuhl. To keep some flavor of civilian life, I rented a small apartment in a nearby village.

That part of Germany had 110-volt, 50-hertz electricity. That meant I could plug in my American record player and my American alarm clock without that converter thing.

While I did notice playing Peggy Lee at 50 herz made her sound like Vic Damone, it never dawned on me that my American alarm clock also would slog along at Vic Damone-speed.

The first night I spent in my new apartment, I dutifully set my alarm for 6 a.m. so that I could get to the base by 8 a.m. Easy peasy. But when I wandered into work an hour late, I realized something was amiss. At 50 hertz, my clock traveled only 50 minutes every hour instead of 60.

I was never very good at math, but I was able to figure out that if I went to bed at midnight, I would have to set my clock ahead exactly one hour if I expected it to wake me up on time.

For the next two years, I dutifully advanced my clock every night and got used to the Andrews Sisters sounding like the Ames Brothers. But when I got back home, I was amazed to discover that Stan Kenton didn’t actually sound like a slow-motion train wreck.

Later on, I used my experience in the Battle of the Hertzes to wire the new addition to my house. Of course, by then I also was dealing with amperes and ohms in addition to volts and hertzes.

I’m not sure what those other things do, and to explain them, I’d also have to get into things like hysteresis losses and eddy current losses, and I don’t know what they are, either. The good news is, I don’t have to set my clock ahead every night.