Thursday, August 30, 2007

Horses: Man's Best Friend or Man's Best Fuel?

Welcome back to Very Little Known Facts!

Recently our friends over at the Submarine World Network (long-time devotees of VLKF) have posted a Very Little Known thread in their forums. The original fact at issue:

  • The word "horsepower" originally referred to the amount of energy released by burning the carcass of one dead horse, the primary source of fuel for early American steamboats.

And here was the post from Submarine enthusiast Donmac:

I only checked out "Horsepower" as I know the above is wrong. So I must assume that since the above highlighted words in quote are false, so then the whole article (posting) may not be true...."Horsepower is defined as work done over time. The exact definition of one horsepower is 33,000 lb.ft./minute. Put another way, if you were to lift 33,000 pounds one foot over a period of one minute, you would have been working at the rate of one horsepower. In this case, you'd have expended one horsepower-minute of energy."

Of course, we here at Very Little Known Facts always encourage our readers to verify everything for themselves, since we are inevitably vindicated. In this case, it is obvious that no human being could possibly lift 33,000 pounds one foot over a period of one minute (or even an hour!) because this is why steamboats were invented in the first place.

Naturally, this pretty much moots the entire point of Donmac's post. But since we are committed to providing added value to our product, what follows is an in-depth analysis of the subject matter at hand. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Steamboat Horsepower Technology

The invention of the steam engine (or 'engine' as we call it today) revolutionized 17th century England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Soon steamboats, steam locomotives, and steam automobiles replaced horses as the primary means of transportation in the civilized world--and beyond! This inexorably led to a glut of unwanted horses--large, cumbersome beasts that were expensive to maintain and likely to turn on and attack their human masters with or without provocation.

What to Do with Excess Horses

The wholesale slaughter of horses in Europe and America in the Steam Age (1848-1910) seemed wasteful to many concerned. In fact, many rivers became almost completely clogged with horse carcasses. The inimitable Mark Clemens described the Mighty Mississip' (short for "Mighty Mississippi") as "a river almost completely clogged with the carcasses of horses." Truer words were never written.

It was legendary inventor, generous philanthropist, and alleged misogynist Robert "Bob" Fulton who first came up with the idea of burning horse carcasses to power steamboats. The idea, brilliant in its simplicity, quickly lead to horse-corpse-free waterways throughout the United States and later Europe. Of course, as the demands for steamboat fuel increased, horse-hunting came into vogue in the Midwest. Unscrupulous poachers even resorted to passing off the rotting meat of ponies, mustangs, stallions, goats, nags, and even large dogs as steamboat fuel.

Horse Carcasses Today

With the advent of nuclear energy, horse-powered steamboats became an antiquated concept fit only for local museums dioramas. However, history buffs still visit "authentic" Mississippi River steamboat casinos to try their hands at Five Card Draw or Blind Man's Bluff as the scintillating scent of burning equines fills the air--just as it did way back when.

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