Posted by FizwaN | 8:26 AM

Horsepower (hp or HP) is the name of several non-metric of power. In scientific discourse, the term "horsepower" is rarely used because of its various definitions and the already existent SI unit for power, the watt (W). However, use of the term "horsepower" persists as a legacy in many languages and industries, particularly as a unit of measurement of the maximum power output of internal-combustion engines of automobiles; and often of trucks, buses, and ships. The use of 'HP' is being slowly replaced by kW (kilowatt) and MW (megawatt).

There are two important factors to consider when evaluating the measurement of "horsepower":

  • The inconsistent definitions of the "horsepower" unit itself
  • The various standards used in measuring the value of "horsepower"

These factors can be combined in unexpected ways — the power output for an engine rated at "100 horsepower" might not be what a reader expects. For this reason, various groups have attempted to standardize not only the definition of "horsepower" but the measurement of "horsepower". In the interim, more confusion may surface.

The development of the steam engine provided a reason to equate the output of horses with the engines that could replace them. In 1702, Thomas Savery wrote in The Miner's Friend: "So that an engine which will raise as much water as two horses, working together at one time in such a work, can do, and for which there must be constantly kept ten or twelve horses for doing the same. Then I say, such an engine may be made large enough to do the work required in employing eight, ten, fifteen, or twenty horses to be constantly maintained and kept for doing such a work..."

The term "horsepower" was coined later by James Watt (lived from 1736 to 1819) and is most famous for his work on improving the performance of steam engines. We are also reminded of him every day when we talk about 60-watt light bulbs.

The story goes that Watt was working with ponies lifting coal at a coal mine, and he wanted a way to talk about the power available from one of these animals. He found that, on average, a mine pony could do 22,000 foot-pounds of work in a minute. He then increased that number by 50 percent and pegged the measurement of horsepower at 33,000 foot-pounds of work in one minute. It is that arbitrary unit of measure that has made its way down through the centuries and now appears on your car, your lawn mower, your chain saw and even in some cases your vacuum cleaner.


What horsepower means is this: In Watt's judgement, one horse can do 33,000 foot-pounds of work every minute. So, imagine a horse raising coal out of a coal mine as shown above. A horse exerting 1 horsepower can raise 330 pounds of coal 100 feet in a minute, or 33 pounds of coal 1,000 feet in one minute, or 1,000 pounds 33 feet in one minute. You can make up whatever combination of feet and pounds you like. As long as the product is 33,000 foot-pounds in one minute, you have a horsepower.

You can probably imagine that you would not want to load 33,000 pounds of coal in the bucket and ask the horse to move it 1 foot in a minute because the horse couldn't budge that big a load. You can probably also imagine that you would not want to put 1 pound of coal in the bucket and ask the horse to run 33,000 feet in one minute, since that translates into 375 miles per hour and horses can't run that fast. With a block and tackle you can easily trade perceived weight for distance using an arrangement of pulleys. So you could create a block and tackle system that puts a comfortable amount of weight on the horse at a comfortable speed no matter how much weight is actually in the bucket.

Horsepower can be converted into other units as well. For example:

  • 1 horsepower is equivalent to 746 watts. So if you took a 1-horsepower horse and put it on a treadmill, it could operate a generator producing a continuous 746 watts.
  • 1 horsepower (over the course of an hour) is equivalent to 2,545 BTU (British thermal units). If you took that 746 watts and ran it through an electric heater for an hour, it would produce 2,545 BTU (where a BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water 1 degree F).
  • One BTU is equal to 1,055 joules, or 252 gram-calories or 0.252 food Calories. Presumably, a horse producing 1 horsepower would burn 641 Calories in one hour if it were 100-percent efficient.

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