Today the chronograph function is arguably the most popular of all watch complications and the chronograph watch has gained a dominant position in the watch market. Its rise in part due to becoming a fashion item combined with a decrease in manufacturing costs has lead to its widespread availability – any self-respecting watch company has a chronograph in its lineup.
The chronograph was originally born out of a necessity to measure the duration of relatively short events; for instance in the sporting world it was first needed to time horse racing; in medicine for measuring the pulse. It was also needed in wartime for such things as artillery and the velocity of missiles. Notably the Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph was used in a famous exploit by Corporal Clive Nutting one of the organizers of the ‘Great Escape’. He timed and recorded the movements of the prison guards so allowing the 76 ill fated escapees to judge the moment for their passage though tunnel “Harry” on 24 March 1944.
More recently the Omega Speedmaster (pictured above) was used on the Apollo 13 mission to time critical rocket burns and aid in its successful return, when the onboard timing system failed due to malfunction. More often than not though the chronograph is used in more down to earth situations like timing a boiled egg!
The name ‘chronograph’ dates right back to 1776 when Jean-Moyes Pouzait came up with the idea for a device able to record the flight time of projectiles. Chronograph comes from the Greek words “chronos” and “graphein”, which when translated become “time” and “writing”. In fact the early chronographs did actually write the time on the dial by use of a small pen attached to the index. The amount of time elapsed was determined by the length of the pen mark. This method is slightly different in terms of mechanics from the modern day version! According to hallmarks on its dust cover, the first chronograph was started in 1815 and completed the following year by Louis Moinet, although he called it a “compteur de tierces”, and it was Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec who developed the first marketed chronograph in 1821 – in 2011 Mont Blanc made a beautiful tribute to this early chronograph with their “Mont Blanc Nicolas Rieussec Chronograph”, it was equipped with a monopusher and featured an innovative display. Later in the 19th century the complication made its way into pocket watches which were used to time events in the first modern Olympic games of 1896. Athletes were now not just racing against each other but against time as well.
Longines arguably produced the first chronograph wristwatch in 1913 which was a single pushpiece (monopusher), and in 1936 they also created the first ‘flyback’ chronograph which has a feature that allows you to instantly jump-start the measurement of a new event without having to stop, reset and restart the chronograph seconds. The same year more chronograph history was written when Universe Geneve unveiled the first chronograph with an hour counter.
The modern mechanical chronograph generally has two dedicated buttons: the first is used to start and stop time, the second to return the pointer to the starting position. These days there are two main ways of combining the chronograph with a watch movement commonly in use. The first – and most desirable because it involves the most skill -is the column wheel method which uses a small turret-like cylinder that meshes with levers to drive the functions. The second is the more commonplace Cam-actuated chronograph system, in which a heart-shaped cam is rotated with each push of the button to activate the functions.
It was Breitling who first patented a separate button to control the chronograph’s start in 1923 and then later introduced another button so that resetting could be done separately from the start and stop functions.
While on the subject of Breitling mention should be made of the Chronomat, the world’s first slide rule chronograph released in the early 1940’s and following that their even more famous Navitimer model that hit the market in 1952 – more than a watch – it was a real computer! It was made to AOPA specifiactions and was the only instrument available combining a chronograph and a pilots computer. The chronograph featured a 12 hour recorder and a 30 minute register, furthermore all the different scales allowed a pilot to calculate data such as fuel consumption, speed and distance and it could also be used as slide rule for all mathematical computations. The Navitimer was also designed with buttons prominent enough to be used when wearing gloves. In 1961 a 24-hour version of the Navitimer was released and was named the “Navitimer Cosmonaute”.
Other technical advances include the more sophisticated “split-seconds chronograph” which is equipped with two second hands, and is capable of measuring two events that begin at the same time but terminate at different times. This functionality is usually equipped with a third button on the case or within the crown.
The Automatic Chronograph
An important event in the evolution of the chronograph was the creation of an automatic version in 1969. The combining of the automatic movement with a chronograph function took a long time to achieve due to the technical difficulties involved, its development was driven in part by the decline in popularity of hand wound chronographs. There were a few watch manufacturers involved in this. In Switzerland a large group including amongst others Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton developed the Calibre 11 movement or ‘Chronomatic’ movement which was used in the Heuer Monaco, the first square cased chronograph.
A partnership between Zenith and Movado gave birth to the Zenith El Primero. With its 36,000 vph movement it was the first high frequency automatic chronograph movement, it was also mounted on the Rolex Daytona built from 1988 to 2000, (but “reduced” to 28.800 vph) . The Japanese also took part in this race and Seiko released its model 6139, also called “Speed Timer”, this had a a 30-minute chronograph recorder and was in production up until 1978 when they decided to drop it in favour of their quartz chronographs. Incidentally a piece of chronograph history was made by Zenith in 2012 when the El Primero Stratos became the first supersonic watch when it was worn by Felix Baumgartner who was the first person to break the sound barrier skydiving an estimated 39 kilometres.
The chronograph has a been a major focus for Tag Heuer, since their Monaco model they have gone on to produce some extremely advanced models. Released in 2005 the Calibre 360 movement was the first automatic chronograph watch in the world capable of 1/100th second accuracy and they followed this with the Tag Heuer Mikrogirder 2000 featuring a high frequency movement of 1,000 Hz at 7.2 million vibrations per hour. The central chrono revolves 20 times each second and it is accurate up to 1/2000th of a second.
At the heart of the fascination for the Chronograph is perhaps mans subconscious desire to control time, or maybe it is simply just the precision with which the chronograph copes with times relentless passage. Either way, dealing as it does with pace, limits and finality it could even be seen as a symbol for modern life.