The tale behind the term ‘horsepower’ 🐎

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gif by Paul Windle

The terms ‘horsepower’ and ‘10,000 steps’ were both marketing gimmicks.

In the 1770s, James Watt wanted to demonstrate that his steam engine invention was more powerful than the work of multiple horses. By watching horses circle a London brewery mill, he calculated that one horse could push 33,000 pounds one foot in a minute. He proved that his one steam engine could not only replicate a horse’s power but that mechanical speed could also improve production rates.

Watt substituted horses, formerly called “living machines” by replacing them with the Watt Steam Engine. After that, a horses’ primary functionality became transport. Even “as late as 1900′, more than 11,000 Bostonians earned their living driving horses.”

The “10,000 step meter” 👣

Meanwhile, watchmaker Yamasa Tokei created a pedometer in 1965 which he called Manpo-Kei. The words in Japanese translate to “10,000 step meter.” Tokei ran ads that encourage “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day!”

While the 10,000 steps a day campaign was entirely arbitrary, it revolutionized the fitness world just as the steam engine transformed engineering and powered the Industrial Revolution. Both the horsepower and 10,000 steps cases are good examples of smart marketing, using the power of a metaphor to explain new technology.

The even bigger question remains though is that what happens when humans no longer have to use their feet, hands, or even their brains? As Matthew Wills writes in ‘Why We Still Use “Horsepower”, the future of working with machines is probably brighter than we think:

Humans now worry about replacement by machines, but horses have already experienced this and for them it may well have been a good thing.

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