Does something feel special about today? Do you feel especially powerful? The sun rose this morning once again to reveal the usual busyness of humanity. You got into your car to go to work, driving the usual route. But there, in your car, you did something almost magical. With the turn of your wrist, you ignited a spark that set off a cascade of explosions that would propel you rapidly through space. And when you reached the main road, you unleashed the full power of 200 invisible horses. By all stretches of the ancient imagination, you became a sorcerer today.

Of course, we’re no sorcerers. The modern world hums with machines that are as powerful as they are mundane. And beneath the hood of your car sits one of the most familiar: an internal combustion engine. Infused into its design is 300 years of innovation, a web of ideas stretching from thermodynamics to muscle. We’ve deployed billions, literally, billions of these machines to move us through the rhythm of the economy. From the smallest scooters rallying 10 horsepower to weave through the congestion of Hanoi to the heaviest 18-wheelers engaging 600 horsepower to summit the igneous bones of Colorado’s mountains, the reins of modern movement strain with a power we scarcely appreciate. But, just what is, horsepower? Why do we invoke the ghosts of our pre-industrial partners to describe the metrics of modern capacity? How powerful is a horse? How do the machines we so thoughtlessly wield today compare to the stallions that helped empires rise and fall for millennia?

I give you, horsepower, and how it began.


Select Bibliography for Horsepower

Anne Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, Harvard University Press, 2008.

James McClellan III and Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Juliet Clutton-Brock, Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey in Human Societies, Harvard University Press, 1992.

Robert Friedel, A Culture of Improvement.  The MIT Press, 2007.

William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry & Invention. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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