A Brief History of Horsepower – and What It Means Today

Two horses running on a dusty field. The photo is in black and white.

We hear the term “horsepower” a lot as a way of referencing the power potential in the engines of vehicles. The word has gone from an eighteenth-century invention to a measurement of the level of performance a vehicle is capable of achieving. It's used in different forms, such as watts, depending on what you’re attempting to measure. 

Mostly, horsepower is associated with the power of modern vehicles – something that can be added to boost your car’s capabilities, possibly through an engine swap. In a car, it’s what you get when you multiply torque by rpm. But where did the term originate, and why do we still use it today? 

Where Did the Word Horsepower Get Its Name?

The term originated many generations ago as a way of expressing new, barely understood mechanical capabilities that would eventually make the Industrial Revolution possible. 

Horsepower has long been associated with added strength and capabilities stemming from mechanical developments, particularly in transportation and technology. There is wide agreement that the word as a form of measurement dates back over two centuries. Originally, it was associated with the early days of the steam engine, which enabled the use of more effective automated equipment in trains and factories, revolutionizing the way people lived at the time. 

As far as words go, it successfully let people know just how important these new inventions were. But how to measure the power of the steam engine? At a time when horses were widely used as sources of transportation and power, new units of measurement were needed. 

How Was Horsepower Originally Measured?

Even back then, the term was used as a way of promoting an engine that would use less fuel than the standard one at the time. As the story goes, an inventor used it to measure the amount of lifting the typical draft horse was able to accomplish. Or, as Merriam Webster puts it: “a unit of power … that equals 550 foot-pounds of work per second,” a figure that dates back to its original definition. 

There were other attempts to equate the work a certain number of horses could perform to indicate engine power. They all amounted to the same basic message. Something was coming that would be replacing all those horses.

The Meaning of Horsepower Today – and Why It Matters

For driving enthusiasts, it’s still a major selling point for anyone wanting a high level of performance from their vehicle. You don’t need to know the math to get the message. Horsepower indicates what a car is capable of in different situations, and it signals value to drivers looking for more of it. 

While torque refers to the force an engine is producing, horsepower lets you know how fast that force is produced. When they work together you get an engine that produces more force more quickly. But the formula for what makes an engine purr is a bit more complex. There are other factors to consider; for instance, the more a vehicle weighs, the more horsepower it will need to produce the same result. 

LS Engine Swap Can Add the Horsepower You Want in Your Car

One thing is clear. The desire for more horsepower is drawing more people toward the LS engine. And you don’t necessarily need a whole new car to get it. As an example, check out what happens when ICT Billet takes an old 1984 GMC Sierra and adds a nitrous system with 700 hp and 800 torque. It’s why so many drivers looking for faster, more forceful acceleration in their vehicles are swapping their old engines for stronger LS ones. 

Ready to get more torque and horsepower out of your ride? Contact ICT Billet at 316-300-0833 to discuss what a professional engine swap can do for your vehicle.

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