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The horsepower (hp) is the name of several non-metric units of power. In scientific discourse the term "horsepower" is rarely used due to the various definitions and the existence of an SI unit for power, the watt (W). However, the idea of horsepower persists as a legacy term in many languages, particularly in the automotive industry for listing the maximum power of internal-combustion engines.

The various types of horsepower (metric) are:

Horsepower (hp)

According to the most common definition of horsepower, one horsepower is defined as exactly:

1 hp = 745.69987158227022 W

A common memory aid is based on the fact that Christopher Columbus first sailed to the Americas in 1492. The memory aid states that 1 hp = 1/2 Columbus or 746 W.

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Divide that son-of-a-gun by two
And that's how many watts there are in a horsepower.

The horsepower was first used by James Watt during a business venture where his steam engines replaced horses. It was defined that a horse can lift 33,000 pounds force with a speed of 1 foot per minute: 33,000 ft·lbf·min−1. This is sometimes called a mechanical horsepower to distinguish it from the other definitions of horsepower below.

Engine horsepower

The power of an engine may be measured or estimated at several points in the transmission of the power from its generation to its application. A number of names are used for the power developed at various stages in this process:

Indicated horsepower (ihp)

Indicated horsepower is the theoretical power of a reciprocating engine assuming that it is completely efficient in converting the energy contained in the expanding gases in the cylinders. It is calculated from the pressures developed in the cylinders, measured by a device called an engine indicator - hence indicated horsepower. It was the figure normally used for steam engines in the 19th century but is misleading because the mechanical efficiency of an engine means that the actual power output may be only 70% to 90% of the indicated horsepower.

Brake horsepower (bhp)

Brake horsepower was a term commonly used before the 1970s in the United States, and is still common in the United Kingdom. It refers to the brake dynamometer, the device for measuring the true power of the engine. Stating power in 'bhp' gives some indication that this is a true reading, rather than a calculated or predicted one. However, it does not tell where the power reading was taken — at the flywheel, transmission or drive wheels.

hp (SAE)

In the United States the term "bhp" fell into disuse after the American Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) recommended manufacturers use "hp (SAE)" to indicate the power of the engine, given that particular car's complete engine installation. It measures engine power at the flywheel, not counting drivetrain losses.

Prior to 1972 most American automakers rated their engines in terms of SAE gross horsepower (defined under SAE standards J245 and J1995). Gross hp was measured using a blueprinted test engine running on a stand without accessories, mufflers, or emissions control devices. It therefore reflected a maximum, theoretical value, not the power of an installed engine in a street car. Gross horsepower figures were also subject to considerable adjustment by carmakers: the power ratings of mass-market engines were often exaggerated, while those for the highest-performance muscle car engines were frequently underrated.

Starting in 1971 automakers began to quote power in terms of SAE net horsepower (as defined by standard J1349). This reflected the rated power of the engine in as-installed trim, with all accessories and standard intake and exhaust systems. By 1972 U.S. carmakers quoted power exclusively in SAE net hp. The change was meant to 'deflate' power ratings to assuage the auto insurance industry and environmental and safety lobbies, as well as to obfuscate the power losses caused by emissions-control equipment.

SAE net ratings, while more accurate than gross ratings, still represent the engine's power at the flywheel. Contrary to some reports, it does not measure power at the drive wheels.

Because SAE gross ratings were applied liberally, at best, there is no precise conversion from gross to net. Comparison of gross and net ratings for unchanged engines show a variance of anywhere from 40 to 150 horsepower. The Chrysler 426 Hemi, for example, in 1971 carried a 425 hp gross rating (often considered to be underrated) and a net rating of 375 hp.

hp (DIN)

This is the power measured according to the German standard DIN 70020. It is measured at the flywheel, and is in practical terms equivalent to the SAE net figure. However, be aware that DIN "horsepower" may in fact be expressed in PS (Pferdestärke) - see "Metric horsepower" below.

SAE-certified horsepower

In 2005, the Society of Automotive Engineers introduced a new test procedure (J2723) for engine horsepower and torque. The procedure eliminates some of the areas of flexibility in power measurement, and requires an independent observer present when engines are measured. The test is voluntary, but engines completing it can be advertised as "SAE-certified".

Many manufacturers began switching to the new rating immediately, often with surprising results. The rated output of Cadillac's Northstar V8 jumped from 440 hp (328 kW) to 469 hp (350 kW) under the new tests, while the rating for Toyota's Camry 3.0 L 1MZ-FE V6 fell from 210 hp (157 kW) to 190 hp (142 kW). The first engine certified under the new program was the 7.0 L LS7 used in the 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Certified power rose slightly from 500 hp (373 kW) to 505 hp (377 kW).

Drawbar horsepower (dbhp)

Drawbar horsepower is the power a railroad locomotive has available to haul a train or an agricultural tractor to pull an implement. This is a measured figure rather than a calculated one. A special railroad car called a dynamometer car coupled behind the locomotive keeps a continuous record of the drawbar pull exerted, and the speed. From these, the power generated can be calculated. To determine the maximum power available, a controllable load is required; this is normally a second locomotive with its brakes applied, in addition to a static load.

Shaft horsepower (shp)

Shaft horsepower is the power delivered to the propellor shaft of a ship or turboprop airplane. This may be measured, or estimated from the indicated horsepower given a standard figure for the losses in the transmission (typical figures are around 10%).

Effective horsepower (ehp)

Effective horsepower is the power converted to useful work. In the case of a vehicle this is the power actually turned into forward motion.

Summary for a ship

Indicated horsepower (theoretical capability of the engine)

minus frictional losses within the engine (bearings, rods, etc), equals

Brake horsepower (power delivered directly by the engine)

minus frictional losses in the transmission (bearings, gears, etc.), equals

Shaft horsepower (power delivered to the shaft)

minus shaft losses (slip, cavitation, etc), equals

Effective horsepower

RAC horsepower (taxable horsepower)

This measure was instituted by the Royal Automobile Club in Britain and used to denote the power of early 20th century British cars. Many cars took their names from this figure (hence the Austin Seven and Riley Nine), while others had names such as "40/50hp", which indicated the RAC figure followed by the true measured power.

Taxable horsepower does not reflect developed horsepower; rather, it is a calculated figure based on the engine's bore size, number of cylinders, and a (now archaic) presumption of engine efficiency. As new engines were designed with ever-increasing efficiency, it was no longer a useful measure, but was kept in use by UK regulations which used the rating for tax purposes.

<math>RAC h.p. = {D^2 * n}/2.5 \,</math>
D is the diameter (or bore) of the cylinder in inches
n is the number of cylinders

This is equal to the displacement in cubic inches divided by 10π then divided again by the stroke in inches. [1]

Since taxable horsepower was computed based on bore and number of cylinders, not based on actual displacement, it gave rise to engines with 'undersquare' dimensions, i.e., relatively narrow bore, but long stroke; this tended to impose an artificially low limit on rotational speed (rpm), hampering the true power output and efficiency of the engine. The situation persisted for several generations of four- and six-cylinder British engines: for example, Jaguar's 3.8-litre XK engine had six cylinders with a bore of 87 mm (3.43 in) and a stroke of 106 mm (4.17 in), where most American automakers had long since moved to oversquare (wide bore, short stroke) V-8s.

Metric horsepower


This unit (German: Pferdestärke = horse strength) is no longer a lawful unit, but is still commonly used in Europe, South America and Japan, especially by the automotive and motorcycle industry. It was adopted throughout continental Europe with designations equivalent to the English "horse power", but mathematically different from the British unit. It is defined by the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB)[2] in Braunschweig as exactly:

1 PS = 75 kp·m/s = 735.49875 W = 0.9863201652997627 hp (SAE)

The PS was adopted by the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), and subsequently, by the automotive industry throughout most of Europe. (In the nineteenth century, however, the French did not use this German unit, but had one of their own, the Poncelet.) In 1992, the PS was rendered obsolete by EEC directives, where it was replaced by the kilowatt as the official power measuring unit, but in situations where horsepower was used for commercial and advertising purposes, it continued to be used, as customers are not familiar with the usage of kilowatts for combustion engines.

The European and Japanese automotive industries may use "horsepower" or "hp" (rather than "PS" or "CV", etc.) when referring to metric horsepower in their press-releases or in the media.


A Dutch paardekracht equals the German Pferdestärke hence

1 pk = 735.49875 W


Often the French name for the Pferdestärke. Also a French unit for tax horsepower, short for chevaux vapeur ("steam horses") or cheval-vapeur, hence Citroën 2CV.

In Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil, 'CV' is the equivalent to the German 'PS'.


This is a French unit for automobile power. The symbol ch is short for chevaux ("horses"). Some sources give it as 735.5 W, but it is generally used interchangeably with the German 'PS'.

Boiler horsepower

A boiler horsepower is used for boilers in power plants. It is equal to 33,475 Btu/h (9.8095 kW).

Electrical horsepower

The electrical horsepower is used by the electrical industry for electric motors and is defined to be exactly 746 watts.

History of the term "horsepower"

The term "horsepower" was invented by James Watt to help market his improved steam engine. He had previously agreed to take royalties of one third of the savings in coal from the older Newcomen steam engines[3]. This royalty scheme did not work with customers who did not have existing steam engines but used horses instead. Watt determined that a horse could turn a mill wheel 144 times in an hour (or 2.4 times a minute). The wheel was 12 feet in radius, thus in a minute the horse travelled 2.4 × 2π × 12 feet. Watt judged that the horse could pull with a force of 180 pounds (just assuming that the measurements of mass were equivalent to measurements of force in pounds-force, which were not well-defined units at the time). So:

<math> power = \frac{work}{time} = \frac{force \times distance}{time} = \frac{(180 \mbox{ lbf})(2.4 \times 2 \pi \times 12 \mbox{ ft})}{1\ \mbox{min}}=32,572 \frac{\mbox{ft} \cdot \mbox{lbf}}{\mbox{min}}</math>

This was rounded to an even 33,000 ft·lbf/min[4].

Others recount that Watt determined that a pony could lift an average 220 pounds 100 feet (30 m) per minute over a four-hour working shift. Watt then judged a horse was 50% more powerful than a pony and thus arrived at the 33,000 ft·lbf/min figure[5].

Engineering in History recounts that John Smeaton initially estimated that a horse could produce 22,916 foot-pounds per minute. John Desaguliers increased that to 27,500 foot-pounds per minute. "Watt found by experiment in 1782 that a 'brewery horse' was able to produce 32,400 foot-pounds per minute". James Watt and Matthew Boulton standardized that figure at 33,000 the next year[6].

Put into perspective, a healthy human can sustain about 0.1 horsepower. Most observers familiar with horses and their capabilities estimate that Watt was either a bit optimistic or intended to underpromise and overdeliver; few horses can maintain that effort for long. Regardless, comparison to a horse proved to be an enduring marketing tool.

Conversion of historical definition to watts

The historical value of 33,000 ft·lbf/min may be converted to the SI unit of watts by using the following conversion of units factors:

  • 1 ft = 0.3048 m
  • 1 lbf = gn × 1 lb = 9.80665 m/s2 × 1 lb × 0.45359237 kg/lb = 4.44822 kg·m/s2 = 4.44822 N
  • 60 seconds = 1 minute
<math>33,000 \frac{\mbox{ft} \cdot \mbox{lbf}}{\mbox{min}} \times \frac{0.3048 \mbox{ m}}{\mbox{ft}} \times \frac{4.44822 \mbox{ N}}{\mbox{lbf}} \times \frac{\mbox{min}}{60 \mbox{ s}}=745.69987158227022 \ \frac{\mbox{N} \cdot \mbox{m}}{\mbox{s}}</math>

And the watt is defined as <math>1\ \mbox{W} = 1 \frac{\mbox{N} \cdot \mbox{m}}{\mbox{s}} </math> so the historical figure of 33,000 ft·lbf/min converts exactly to the modern definition.


  • H.W.Dickenson, James Watt - Craftsman and Engineer, Cambridge University Press, 1936, p 145.
  • Richard Shelton Kirby, et al, Engineering in History, Courier Dover Publications, 1990, p 171, ISBN 0486264122

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