The word chronograph comes from the Greek words chronos, which means time, and graph, meaning to write. The first modern chronograph was developed in 1816 when the French watchmaker Louis Moinet invented the chronograph solely to use it as a piece of astrological equipment. Moinet’s chronograph, at that time, could measure time accurately to 1/60th of a second.
Despite this early account of the invention, the world recognises French watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec’s chronograph as the first modern timepiece to be marketed as a chronograph in 1821. As the watchmaker of the French King Louis XVII, the need to develop the chronograph came from the requirement to accurately time horse racing on the Champ de Mars. This patented ‘seconds chronograph’ device offered incredible accuracy with the ability to time events to a tenth of a second.
As pocketwatches (which was the trend then), the capacity of a chronograph was limited. Despite many improvements, including the successive measurement feature, the structure of a pocketwatch encased in a small wooden box or round metal offered limited functions. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the chronographic stopwatch made its way onto the wrists as timekeeping wristwatches.
The year was 1913 when Swiss manufacturer Longines built a monopusher chronograph with an accuracy of 1/5th of a second. This became a turning point for many other recognised watchmakers to follow suit. From Breitling releasing its first chronograph wristwatch in 1915 to Universal Genève following suit in 1917, watch companies began experimenting by turning pocket watches into wrist chronographs.
By the early 20th century, the tachymeter (an integral part of a chronograph) was added to the chronograph watch, making it an indispensable tool for aviation, naval operation, and submarine navigation. In 1923, Patek Philippe became the first watchmaker to inculcate a split-seconds chronograph in a wristwatch. By 1938, Longines had created history by developing the Calibre 13ZN, the world’s first flyback chronograph movement. A few years later, in 1952, Breitling introduced the world to the Navitimer – the ultimate pilot’s companion. Set with its now famous slide-rule dial, the Navitimer was launched with support from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The world then witnessed a series of releases from brands like OMEGA (1957 Speedmaster), Rolex (1963 Cosmograph Daytona) and Heuer (1963 Carrera). These watches have become the epitome of chronograph watches, and enjoy a cult following among watch collectors.
By the late 1960s, the world was witnessing a boom, with watch manufacturers racing to create the first automatic Chronograph watch. Many prolific watchmakers like Hamilton, Heuer, and Breitling collaborated with movement experts Dubois-Depraz to develop and patent an automatic movement known as Caliber 11. This led to the birth of Zenith’s El Primero – the world’s fastest oscillating Chronograph beating at 36,000 vph in 1969. In the Far East, Seiko emerged with its Calibre 6139 — the first full rotor, vertical clutch, column wheel, and self-winding chronograph.
But how does a chronograph work? The modern chronograph is home to three push buttons on the side of the case. These buttons control the stopwatch and any other complications the watch might feature. One of these buttons adjacent to 2 o’clock offers the start/stop function, which initiates the stopwatch. When it is pushed, the countdown of the time elapsed is measured until the button is pressed again. Apart from the stopwatch, a chronograph also offers various other complications like moon cycles, heartbeat recordings, and measurement of speed/distance using a tachymeter bezel.
There are many ways a chronograph complication can be enhanced. Here are a few types of chronographs that offer improved performance with additional components or features.
As the name suggests, this is one of the basic chronographs in the watch industry. Catering to a demand that only fulfils the function of elapsed time measurement, this chronograph features one or two pushers at 2 and 4 o’clock positions. These allow the complication to start, stop, or reset. Most of the chronograph watches available in the market right now belong to this category, including classics like the Rolex Daytona and the OMEGA Speedmaster.
Dedicated to pilots and similar to the simple chronograph (in terms of its function), the flyback chronograph offers the same start, stop, and reset functions. However, they also house an additional ability. When you press the reset pusher at 4 o’clock while the chronograph is running, the hands will fly back to zero and restart immediately. The complication was initially created to cater to pilots who used this function to synchronise their timing simultaneously. Now, flyback chronograph watches are used to record back-to-back events with multiple laps.
As the name suggests, the monopusher chronograph features just one pusher instead of the regular two-pusher format. The advantage of featuring just one is a cleaner design aesthetic, with some brands incorporating the button into the crown. This, however, proves disadvantageous in terms of the performance of the chronograph. How? As all functions are controlled by a single pusher, the wearer cannot continue timing once it has been stopped. The hand will always go back to zero with the third press. The watch industry offers a modern take on the complication, from Montblanc’s collection of Monopusher chronographs to IWC’s Big Pilot Monopusher Chronograph in 4N gold.
Despite the rather complicated name (Rattrapante comes from the French verb rattrapante, meaning ‘to catch up’), the Regatta chronograph essentially entails the counting down of numbers. Also called a countdown chronograph, the watch is dedicated to sailors or sailing races who utilise this specialised subset of chronographs that are modified to count down instead of up. The timepiece marked by two seconds hands stacked neatly on top of each other usually features five-minute increments. This allows the wearer to count down to the start of a race and then seamlessly start counting up to measure the duration of time.
Lead Image: Paul Cuoco/Unsplash