Friday, September 30, 2011

Phraselet No. 101

Horsepower is not a quaint leftover of linguistics or a vague metaphoric anachronism. James Watt, father of the steam engine and progenitor of the industrial revolution, lacked a measurement for the movement of weight over distance in time -- what we call energy. ... Mr. Watt did research using draft animals and found that, under optimal conditions, a dray horse could lift 33,000 pounds one foot off the ground in one minute. Mr. Watt -- the eponymous watt not yet existing -- called this unit of energy "1 horse-power."

In 1970 a Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370. In the time of one minute, for the space of one foot, it could move 12,210,000 pounds. And it could move those pounds down every foot of every mile of all the roads to the ends of the earth for every minute of every hour until the driver nodded off at the wheel. Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan, whose hordes went forth to pillage mounted upon less oomph than is in a modern leaf blower.

- P.J. O'Rourke, "The End of the Affair," The Wall Street Journal (May 30 - 31, 2009)

1 comment:

Loren Eaton said...

In its "Corrections & Amplifications" for this issue, the Journal rightly notes that horsepower measure, well, power rather than energy, as O'Rourke states.