HORSEPOWER: a foot-pound-second unit of power, equivalent to 550 foot-pounds per second, or 745.7 watts.

I defy you to find one hour of television in a day when there isn’t at least one advertisement for car purchase which touts the horsepower of the latest model.   We listen to it, maybe impressed that such a small car can get 331 horsepower out of a six cylinder engine, but I’ll be that for the most part that fact slips right by the listener.   I have to wonder how many of us (myself included) actually know what it means to have 331 horsepower.

It’s another one of those words that gets used constantly, but without much explanation.  The advertisers just assume that most of us are car junkies and know by training, education, experience, or osmosis the meaning of this strange word.  Wikipedia tells us that

“The most common conversion factor, especially for electrical power, is 1 hp = 746 watts. The term was adopted in the late 18th century by Scottish engineer James Watt to compare the output of steam engines with the power of draft horses.”

That makes some sense to me, although I’m not used to factoring steam power these days.  But at least it spells it out in plain English.

The more literary use of the word horsepower interests me more.   It is a term which is used to indicate a strong force behind something.   One might say:

“She put a lot of horsepower behind her effort to bring about change.

It’s a good descriptive term to indicate that a lot of human energy was employed in a process.   It could be said, for instance, that the Obama campaign committee exerted a huge amount of horsepower in carrying out its plan for the re-election of President Obama.   That included a massive volunteer effort in the marginal states to knock on doors, attend meetings, put out lawn signs, and all the myriad of activities required to get out the vote on election day.   It was impressive.

Right now the Congress could use a good shot of horsepower in getting significant things accomplished.  It feels to me as if the workhorses being employed are old, frail and poorly nourished.  Maybe the few days they have taken to go home and lick wounds will increase their output.


Photo Credit:  Desmond Morris

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