Horse = Horsepower

Draft Team PlowingI have had this little note burning in the back of my mind for sometime now. Driving around Circle 4 in Lexington, I caught site of a billboard for the Speed School at the University of Louisville. I think, if I recall correctly that is in particular the engineering school. The billboard said something to the effect of without engineers horsepower would still be horses. That has kind of stuck in my crawl if you will and every time I think on it, it chaps by proverbial behind end.

Before I get into my full blown rant about the subject, let me start by saying that I have nothing against engineers in general (well, excepting those that were on the Saturn design team, but that is another story completely). Matter of fact, being a computer scientist by training and trade, I am probably more closely in tune with engineers then I am with a LOT of other folks. Add to that, I spent several years working at IBM/Lexmark in development, both for and with engineers of several types and I feel like I have a good relationship with most of them. Matter of fact, I count amongst several better friends engineers.

That being said I have to take issue with the term on three fronts:

  1. First is the question of just where does the Speed School of Engineering think the term horsepower originates from? The answer is of course from James Watt, who after having made notable improvements on the steam engine, needed a way to show cost savings to his potential consumers in what it would cost to convert to the steam engine compared to the horse. The history on that is that clearly there were some high estimates of what a horse can do consistently but the general idea has stuck and is based on bringing a measure of water out of a well. Taking the idea a bit forward, there is a number of different definitions today based on the application, but fundamentally they all track back to this original establishment. Ironically over a short burst a horse can achieve an easy 13-14 hp, a well trained athlete upward of 3.5 hp, but over time both would average well less than 1 hp.
  2. Horsepower, meaning the use of draft animals is still very much in use today. Given the cost of fuels and such for most of modern powered equipment the looking toward the output achieved there for cost is worthwhile. This is especially when one considers the cost in relation to the effects on the environment that various mechanized devices as such internal combustion engines and coal-fired power plants tend to produce. I will allow the argument of efficiency to stand for most modern devices versus draft power. However, if you had to assign a cost to both things like the environmental effects as well as all the things involved in producing the engine that drives you car compared to that of the horse, I am not sure that the huge gain we currently have with modern technology stand over time. I will even go far to assert the easily obtainable power from fossil fuels has made engineers today lazy. I see a lot of applications where instead of working through the problem – juts give it a bigger power house.
  3. I will take this one step further. I am sure most modern, especially small, farmers will agree. Farmers are by definition engineers, always coming up with the way to make things work. Take this thought back to the time when draft animals were the power source and I would argue that a lot more engineering was done at the time to facilitate how to gain better conversion from the known quantities of power that were had. Primarily water when it was running, the occasional wind device, but especially draft animals. This was particularly true with those animals in regards to both mining and especially agricultural applications. I will agree, that perhaps a lot of those farmers, both then and now, did not have the formal schooling, but many would work circles around a degree holding engineer in lot of problem situations in finding workable solutions given constraints. Lastly, I will add most of the state universities in the 1800’s were founded as agriculture and engineering schools for a reason.

Okay, that is enough to get my thoughts out there and I will let it rest from my point, allowing you all to comment further if you wish.