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Why do we call it horsepower, when we talk about engines?

How many horses are under your hood?
How many horses are under your hood?
Why do we call it horsepower, when we talk about engines? Created by this user with public domain image.

Horsepower is a highlight of a car buff conversation. The topic reigns, when people talk about muscle cars, sports cars, or other powerful engines. What does horsepower even mean? What is horsepower, and where did this popular phrase originate?

How many horses are under your hood?

Remember those teen years, when drag racing was the dialogue of the high school cafeteria lunch table? (Hopefully, most of the talk was simply that, just talk. Drag racing can be dangerous stuff, especially off the track.)

In teen movies, the scene usually played out the same way. Two cars, filled with enthusiastic teenagers, would pull up to a traffic light at the same time. The two young drivers would rev their engines, indicating daredevil streaks.

Drivers' windows would roll down, and the daring would begin.

"What's under your hood," one driver would ask. "How many horses have you got?"

What does horsepower mean?

Simply put, the level of horsepower of a motorized engine indicates the amount of power it is able to produce. Automotive, boating and other manufacturers customarily label their engine products in terms of horsepower.

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Consider convincing explanations for the term “horsepower.”

Obviously, the term "horsepower" originated in the past, when horses were used for transportation, construction, agriculture and other industries.

According to tradition, Scottish engineer James Watt (best known for inventing the steam engine) used ponies for heavy lifting in coal mines around the beginning of the 19th Century. Watt measured how many horses were required for various levels of work performance and developed a mathematical formula for it.

Watt said one horsepower equaled the power necessary to lift a total mass of 33,000 pounds (11.5 tons) by one foot in one minute. Horsepower as a means of measuring operational capability was born.

In the mid-1800s, many farmers employed a mechanical implement, known as the horse power, for industry and farming. Basically, the horse power apparatus employed a giant treadmill to power threshers, corn-shellers, pumps, milling machines, and other mechanized equipment. A pair of large draft horses would walk on the treadmill to generate the power. A chain (similar to what is found on a bicycle) would then turn an axle on the secondary equipment to make it work. Quite literally, horsepower made the horse power work.

Over the years, the word "horsepower" has evolved into a term describing units of power, particularly for automotive, marine, and other internal combustion engines.

Regardless of the explanation for horsepower, the main point is simple. If power is what you require, then you will need plenty of horsepower in your motor.

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