Although history celebrates James Watt as the mechanical genius whose steam engines launched the Industrial Revolution, Watt’s most enduring innovation reflects an even greater penchant for marketing. He invented horsepower — the metric and meme that effectively defined his industry. Most important, Watt’s neologism has outlived every engine he designed or built.
The term horsepower represented clever rhetorical engineering by Watt and partner Matthew Boulton, whose business had prospered by charging mine owners only one-third of the cost savings achieved by replacing less-efficient Newcomen steam engines with their own.
Seeking to broaden their market, the collaborators thought brewmasters might find value in this new production technology. But 18th-century British breweries used horses — not steam — to power the turning of their mills’ grindstones. So it behooved Boulton and Watt to recalculate their steam engines’ appeal accordingly. After a period of equine observation, Watt determined that the typical coal-mine pony could pull 22,000 foot-pounds per minute. To extrapolate this finding to a large horse, Watt increased these test results by 50 percent — i.e., 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute — and called it horsepower.
Some historians believe that Watt overstated the amount of power that a horse can deliver over a sustained period of time. Nonetheless, his comparison of steam engine output to a team of horses working together proved to be a remarkably persuasive marketing metric for prospective purchasers, whether brewers, millers, or mine owners. Horsepower became a global standard that helped build the Boulton & Watt brand and business.
This notion of using innovative metrics — measures that gauge the unique value inherent in an innovation as a means of marketing it — goes well beyond the traditional approach of adding new “features” and “functionality” to attract consumers to products and services. By creating fresh language for the way people calibrate the worth and efficacy of a particular idea, innovative metrics have the potential to be so intrinsically compelling — or at least so creatively marketed — that they become, like horsepower, the overriding identity of a product or brand. Which means, in turn, that these metrics should be crafted with the same singular sensibility as the inventions themselves.
Though that may seem a high bar to reach, devising innovative metrics can be a remarkably low-tech endeavor. For example, in the 1880s, Harley Procter, a son of the cofounder of Procter & Gamble, merely examined a laboratory analysis to add up the ingredients in Ivory Soap that didn’t fall into the category of pure soap; he learned that taken together these ingredients equaled 56/100 of 1 percent of Ivory. He subtracted that number from 100 and wrote the slogan “99−44/100% Pure.” That metric — rooted, like horsepower, in a simple empirical calculation — became an integral ingredient of the soap’s brand equity and in many ways spurred Procter & Gamble’s future success.
By contrast, Willis Carrier — the entrepreneur most responsible for the commercialization of air-conditioning — chose a far more sophisticated path to an innovative metric. He conducted elaborate studies examining the complex relationships between moisture in the air and ambient temperature and studied the effectiveness of various types of cooling technology on them. Armed with extensive charts and scores of formulas, Carrier presented his work on the performance of air-conditioning methods in a 1911 paper, “Rational Psychrometric Formulae.” This one paper established air-conditioning as a new engineering discipline. Carrier’s technologies were particularly eye-opening because they not only managed humidity levels but did so with the accuracy of a thermostat controlling temperature. Based on Carrier’s calculations and his new equipment born of this research, prospects were persuaded to pay large sums not only to cool overheated factories but to, for the first time, “condition” — remove unwanted moisture from — their fetid air in hopes of improving production quality.