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Where Did the Term “Horsepower” Come From?

The term "horsepower" traces back to the 18th century, coined by engineer James Watt to quantify engine power in relatable terms. He compared the output of steam engines to the work of draft horses, once the driving force of industry. Intrigued by how this unit of measure still powers our world? Join us as we unravel the history behind horsepower.

You might not be as strong as an ox, but you could argue that you are as strong as a horse – in a sense. According to LiveScience, an average healthy human is capable of producing 1 horsepower of work. That sounds like a lot, right? Well, the truth is, one average healthy horse can produce about 15 horsepower.

If that all sounds confusing, blame steam engine pioneer James Watt, who coined the term "horsepower" in the 1700s as a way to boast about the strength of his inventions. Accuracy wasn't so important, apparently. Watt used simple observations to estimate how much work a horse could produce – about 33,000 foot-pounds per minute – and compared it with his powerful steam engines.

Coined by James Watt, the term “horsepower” is very inexact; the peak power production of a horse is around 15 horsepower.
Coined by James Watt, the term “horsepower” is very inexact; the peak power production of a horse is around 15 horsepower.

Watt was so revered that no one bothered to question his estimate, and thus the word "horsepower" became part of common vernacular, and is still used today (an average car has around 170-190 horsepower). It might not be horse sense, but it was great for business.

Watt a guy:

  • James Watt made his first foray into steam power by experimenting with his mother's cooking pots as a child.

  • James Watt also invented the micrometer, a precise measuring device still in use today.

  • Many business owners refused to pay Watt royalties for his steam engine, relying on older, less-efficient engines instead.

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Discussion Comments

dimchild

The average car today has 170 - 190 hp? Where did they get that? Maybe in the US. In Europe, and I guess the rest of the world, it should between 100 - 140.

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    • Coined by James Watt, the term “horsepower” is very inexact; the peak power production of a horse is around 15 horsepower.
      Coined by James Watt, the term “horsepower” is very inexact; the peak power production of a horse is around 15 horsepower.