The Persistence of the Horsepower Unit.

Institutions don’t like to change their standards. When cars and more generally, engines, were invented, measuring in horsepower made sense as a means of comparison. Horses were the means of heavy lifting for things like pulling loads, or plowing fields. Giving the customer a sense for how a car compared to what they knew made sense.

Horsepower isn’t an easily applied unit in engineering. It’s generally converted from something like watts, which is the metric systems unit for power. As a result, horsepower is a remnant of a time gone by. It’s purpose was for the average consumer to understand the comparison to the animal they were replacing. Today, we live in a society where the average person has no horse experience and the comparison only makes sense in horsepower because previous generations of vehicles were measured in them. To compare performance to those older models, keeping the unit makes sense.

Let’s be clear though, measuring things in horsepower these days isn’t because it’s a good unit of measurement. It’s ONLY because institutions resist change. Tradition is holding the horsepower as the standard unit of measurement for vehicles and nothing more.

There are two things to draw from this:

  1. It’s possible to create something that will last because people like things like this, and because it becomes a tradition.
  2. To bring about a better way to do things, at times, it’s important to kill those traditions.

For #2, I won’t say that the horsepower is holding back the vehicle industry, but there are certainly other issues facing the world where tradition holds us back. That only happens if we let it.