It’s All about Horsepower for Gearhead Patrons

Chilton Auto Resources at Library

By Ryan Lee Price

The 305 cubic-inch engine in the Koenigsegg One “megacar” is capable of producing 1,360 horsepower from its gas-powered V8, propelling the 1,360-kg car to a top speed of 280 mph in 20 seconds. That’s a lot of power, and one can’t help but to imagine 1,360 horses hitched to the front of the $1.5 million car attempting to pull it up to 280 mph. However, in either guise—engine or horse team—1,360 horsepower represents the work of a lot of horses, and to understand how the term has been applied to cars, we have to go back about 100 years before cars were even invented.

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The History of Transcontinental Travel: The Unknown Horizon

American Progress, by John Gast, 1872. Chromolithograph published by George A. Crofutt. Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

By Ryan Price

John Gast was a painter based in Brooklyn when he was commissioned to paint this picture for George Crofutt, a publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. The images Gast put to canvas represent a historical timeline of transportation technologies up until 1872 when the painting was completed. The Indian travois, the covered wagons, Pony Express, overland stage and the three railroad lines are not only progressively pushing one another forward (from East to West) but also driving the indigenous inhabitants — buffalo, bear and Native Americans — almost literally off of the painting. In the wake of this expansion are the tall ships in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Columbia (a personification of the United States) guides the way, holding a schoolbook in one hand while stringing telegraph wire with the other. The imagery is a vivid and dynamic telling of not only the history of westward expansion but the future of it as well.

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