The History of Horses, Horsepower, and Engines

On Horseback and Horse Drawn

Before the invention of automobiles, horses were a primary mode of transportation. They had a lot of challenges compared to their modern counterparts, as they were noisy, expensive, and caused many accidents, congestion, and pollution. Although horses did not require gasoline, mechanics, and garages, they did require stables, feed, and veterinarians. Moreover, each horse could produce up to 30 pounds of dung every day, which, when multiplied by the hundreds or thousands of horses on streets, translated to an ever-present layer of horse manure. This created an unsightly site, attracted flies, travelled in the wind, clung to shoes, and even seeped into the water supply.

Abandoned automobiles are unpleasant, but consider horse owners who left their feeble horses on the roadside to die. Many of these animals remained there for a while before anyone carted them away. Horses died in other ways as well. As difficult as it may be to comprehend given their low speeds, horse-drawn vehicles were considerably more deadly than their modern counterparts, with accident rates similar or slightly higher to those of motor vehicles in the 20th century.

Enter the Horseless Carriage

It was not until the last decade of the 19th century that inventors started to play around with the idea of propelling carriages with bicycle parts, steam boilers, and gasoline engines. It would take about two decades for the transition to horseless carriages. These were used by the wealthy, who could afford the technology, as well as the mechanically skilled, who could design and build their own. They were also used by doctors, who needed fast transportation for emergency situations.



By the mid 1920s, there were many horseless carriages, with autos that could generate 20 to 35 horsepower, and move at a speed of about 10 mph. But how did the term horsepower come about?

The Evolution of a Measurement

The story goes back to the early days of England’s industrial revolution, when a team of horses was used to raise coal up from coal mines. James Watt came up with the definition of horsepower when he proposed to coal companies that the steam engine could replace their horses. In order to compare the capability of a steam engine to a team of horses, James Watt measured how long it took a horse to lift a certain weight for a certain distance, and then compared that value to how long it took his steam engine to accomplish the same. This way, he could argue that his steam engine has equivalent power to this number of horses — horsepower, or HP.

The steam engine was invented in 1698, but it was not until 70 years later that Watt made significant improvements to make it practical. He made the steam engine four times more efficient, as well as more powerful, from the earlier 6 HP to about 200 HP. He also made them much smaller so they could now fit under a hood.

Naturally, James Watt wanted people to see his steam engines as extremely powerful. So, after multiple tests with horses, he established that one horse could haul coal at an average rate of 22,000 lb-ft per minute. But because he was a business man and wanted his engines to look more powerful, he increased the number by 50% to 33,000 lb-ft per minute. (This was obviously an impossible figure then, since steroids had not even been invented, but it has stood.)

So, an engine that can pull 33,000 pounds of commodities for one foot in one minute is said to be a one-horsepower (HP) engine. HP is a measure of power, like Watts, Joules, and BTUs. One HP is equivalent to 746 W and 2545 Btu/hr.

Continuing Today

Based on this, it is easy to see how horseless carriages with 20 HP engines could easily replace horse carriages in the beginning of the 20th century. This also marked the start of a competitive industry that is still going strong today.

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