Homepage Electrical stuff

Vintage Italian fuse and breaker panels

Here's the thing: Italy didn't have fuse panels, at least not in the same way as other countries did. Of course, it's not like Italy didn't have fuses at all, however we didn't have something ready-made like the Wylex fuse boxes in the UK and the Edison screw fuse panels in the US, or even some of the self-contained Diazed fuses boards used in parts of Europe.

This meant that the way protection for the various circuits was achieved here was to buy separate fuse holders for each circuit - which wouldn't been as big of a deal back then as houses often had very few of them anyways - and then mount them to a board or some sort of electrical enclosure.

Fuse holders

Fuse holders can vary a lot between different designs, but all of them fall into one of two categories: they can either be cartridge-based, or rewireable.
The advantage of the rewireable ones was the cost, you could buy cards with fuse wire that would last you for quite a while, however they did require a bit more skill to install (compared to removing a cartridge fuse and putting another one in), and it made it easier to use the wrong size of fuse compared to some of the cartridge designs, like the Diazed fuses (which, while standard in the rest of Europe, weren't as common for residential installations in Italy).

The main disadvantage of fuses was that they're not resettable. Breakers did eventually catch on, of course, but given their much higher complexity (compared to fuses, which are just a wire that melts with a fancy case around it, essentially) they were out of the price range of most people for decades after their introduction.

"Tobacco tin" rewireable fuse holder

The so-called "portafusibile a tabacchiera", tobacco tin fuse holders, were among the most popular types of fuse holders in use in Italy up until the 50s-60s. They consisted of a ceramic piece with metal contacts, with screws to attach the wires, and a removable lid (also made of ceramic) which is where the fuse wire was held.

This particular example is in remarkably good condition. Normally with ceramic stuff it's quite common to see scratches or chips, as they're quite fragile, but this one is almost perfect - and it's fairly clean as well.

Edison socket cartridge-style fuses

These are early examples of cartridge-based fuses; they were built out of metal with ceramic as an insulator, with the metal, oddly enough, also being used for an insulated piece on the top where the user was meant to unscrew the fuse.
The fuse holder was built out of a single piece of ceramic and used normal E27 sockets (two, in this case) - this meant that replacing the fuse was as easy as changing a lightbulb.

The top also features the screws for the wire connections - the contacts are on a slight recess, but they are still very easy to touch, which means the user would have had to pay special attention when replacing a fuse.

This style of fuse holder is somewhat similar to the ones once used in North America, since those also used Edison screw sockets, and in fact an American fuse fits perfectly. Those types of fuses generally used a glass top rather than a metal one, so they'd actually have been somewhat safer than the original fuses that came with this holder.

Notably, compared to other designs that have some sort of lid, like the Diazed fuses but also ones used here in Italy, in this one there is no lid or any other pieces other than the fuse itself, which screws directly into the Edison socket.

Breakers

AVE type 1902 double pole breaker

This is a type of early breaker. Like most other early breakers, it's quite large and it's built on a ceramic base, with a plastic cover on top of it. This specific example is missing the top and bottom covers that would have protected the terminals - this is also where some of the mounting holes are situated.

The screws holding the cover in place have holes so they could be sealed if the usecase required it - for example, if the breaker was to be used as a limiter by a power company. Once the cover is removed the mechanism is revealed, including the two large coils which sense a possible overcurrent or short circuit.
Adjustment of the tripping current can be done here, using a rotating wheel. Indeed, contrary to most modern household breakers, these old ones had a user-adjustable current.

The front cover contains the on/off buttons (instead of a lever like on modern devices), which are surrounded by a protrusion to prevent accidentally pushing them, and a label with the model number, manufacturer's name, and rating. The breaker is rated at 380V, 12 to 25A (as also indicated on the adjustment wheel).

Panels

Fuse panel with BTicino fuses

This fusebox was made by taking an ordinary electrical enclosure and mounting two BTicino fuse holders on it, a common practice at the time. The two fuse holders are double-pole 16A-rated models made by BTicino, who sold tons of models similar to this over the years.
The double pole fusing might seem strange, however back in the day it wasn't uncommon to have both wires coming into your home be live at 120V (even after the 120V lighting circuit were faded out), and in some rare cases that is still a thing in Italy (although in most installations it has been phased out a long time ago).

The box the fuse holders are mounted on is made of metal, with the lid the breakers sit on being made out of some kind of wood. The box has no place for an earth connection, which isn't surprising given that back in the day earthing wasn't very common in Italian homes, and safety practices were lacking.

The fuse holders are made of ceramic, with a plastic moulded lid on top of them. The two fuses are of a cartridge type, and they are removed by unscrewing the two small covers on the front of the device. The lids have a slot in them so you can use a coin to unscrew them, and they also have a clear window so you can tell when the fuse has blown.

A switch is present so you can remove the fuses safely (although there is nothing stopping you from removing the fuses with the power still on).
The switch has a coloured indicator to inform the user of its state - red for on and green for off. This might seem counterintuitive, however the idea is that green = safe, and red = dangerous. This practice is present even on some modern breakers.

History

A look at the history of fuses

In the early days of electricity being available, there wasn't really a single standard for fuses. Early fuse holders, generally made of ceramic or bakelite, were made in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They were available as both cartridges and rewireable fuses; the latter being more common.

Fuse holders meant for use with rewireable fuse wire could vary quite considerably in design. The most popular variant was the "portafusibile a tabacchiera" (tobacco tin fuse holder), which had a ceramic lid on which the fuse wire was held, however other designs were also available.

Cartridge fuse holders also varied considerably in design, with some models having the fuse screw down onto an Edison-style screw socket, while others had a lid which you had to unscrew to replace the fuse. Some versions also had a window to show when the fuse had blown, in order to find it more easily inside a fusebox.

Of course, all of these early examples were incredibly unsafe, with metal terminals exposed and easy to touch. I explored that in more detail in the section about safety.

During the last decades of the fuse era, one specific brand became popular: BTicino. BTicino fuse holders had been available in the 50s and earlier, but they surged in popularity during the 60s, and 70, being used from isolators for boilers to apartment fuse panels.
These types of fuse holder were available in a wide variety of models, but they can basically be grouped into two main varieties: the cartridge fuse ones and the rewireable fuse ones. The various models that were available differed in rating (16A, 26A and 50A), number of fuses (one, two or three, depending on the type of circuit) and mounting options (panel mount vs surface mount) and materials (metal or plastic).

One specific type of devices that I would like to focus on were the "interruttori antinfortunistici" (="switches for protection against accidents").
These were fuse holders, made of metal, which had a lid on top of the fuses to prevent you from removing them unless the power switch was in the off position. Many of them also had a plug which you could remove, again only once the power switch was turned off, a feature which I presume would have been very useful in industrial applications.

One thing you might have noticed with all of these fuse holders is that most of them contain two fuses.
This isn't because they were meant for two circuits , it's because they were meant for two-phase 220V or 280V circuits, with lighting circuits only using one phase and thus only needing single-pole fuse holders. I talked about that in more detail in the history section.

The history of breakers

The earliest breakers to become popular were the Zeus-Rapizzi type.
Being so early, they were initally not common in normal houses, instead being used in commercial applications or, apparently, as limiters for power companies. The Zeus breakers had a fairly modern appearance, since they had a normal switch to turn the power on or off instead of using push-buttons like most other early breaker models.

Later on BTicino started producing breakers too - BTicino breakers were very popular in the 60s, and there were various types of them: some mounted on a board like normal fuse holders, but there was another type that was wall-mounted and came with two breakers, depending on the configuration.
From my understanding this was the first breaker panel to become popular, however it wasn't modular: you could buy various configurations of it (apparently one of the configurations came with a built-in doorbell transformer), but you couldn't add other breakers after the fact.

One way of building modular panels was with a system made by Ave. This system consisted of various modules that could be connected together to form a single panel. This might seem like the same thing as a modern panel, but from the looks of it modules couldn't be added afterwards since it seems like this system was meant to be mounted inside the wall.

The earliest "real" breaker panel that I could find a pic of is the "TIMATIC" line from BTicino, which was briefly described in an electrical book from the 60s I have. Thing is, if you go online and search for it, you'll find zero results. However, I've seen some eBay listings of breakers that looked a LOT like the ones in that picture, except they were branded as "MagiTik"... but I've never managed to see a picture of a breaker panel like the one in that book.
Being that there's literally 0 info about this line online, I can't imagine that it was all that popular.

So, this means that the earliest modular, modern-style type of breaker panel that I've seen online is the BTicino Tiker system. This was basically an Italian DIN rail: you had various modules that you could connect in a box, and you could get boxes of various sizes depending on your needs.

Of course, later on DIN rail breakers and RCDs as used anywhere in Europe were adopted. There isn't much to differentiate the earlier ones from modern examples other than the design (modern ones generally have more plastic around the terminals to prevent accidental contacts).
Notably, breakers today still break the neutral as well as the live, perhaps a leftover from the days of dual fusing.