Hymn to chronograph…

Most of the time used (when used) to prepare al dente pastas or perfect boiled eggs (meaning 3’50”), this complication hides a very rich past with lots of variations corresponding to specific purposes and functionalities. Let’s concentrate on the story of this popular complication you will find in most brands’ catalogs. Cause behind its apparent banality, the chronograph hides a very high level of technicity.

The chronograph is the watchmakers’ legacy to measure the time, and the fulfillment of many years of research. Going over XVIII and XIX centuries, we can trace all the inventions that have created the modern chronograph. Form the concept to the name, this complication summarizes many strong innovations.

Let’s start with a definition: the chronograph is a complication used to measure the time of an action, activated on demand by a push button. The first pressure activates the chronograph, the second one will stop it and a last one will restart it. The difference between a chronograph and a chronometer is that the chronograph indicates hours (in addition to minutes and seconds).

There are two different ways to build a chronograph. The simple mechanisms use a cam while the more sophisticated use a column wheel coordinating the different phases of the chronograph. This second version is used on high-end models.

Once the chronograph was created, then watchmakers developed some variations corresponding to specific uses. Two development directions can be distinguished: the first one is on the mechanism itself, while the second one is about scales.


The Chronograph: between innovation and legacy

Back to 1776, Jean-Paul Pouzait develops a watch that has an independent second that he could start and stop on demand, but without the reset function. This invention is the base of the chronograph concept: measuring the time of an action on demand.

Other researches will follow, improving this complication step by step. One of the most significant comes from Louis Moinet with his “compteur de tierce” in 1816. As a true visionary, some people see him as the real “father” of the chronograph. His creation was able to measure lap time up to hours with a great accuracy (1/60 seconds !). The only omission to call it a chronograph? The hour indication… But we can admire the French watchmaker’s work even if it hasn’t been reused. Adolphe Nicole is considered as the creator of the modern chronograph as he developed the reset functionality in 1844, which will be integrated in a pocket watch in 1862 by Nicole and Capt.

However, the term “chronograph” will be used for the first time in 1821 by Nicolas Rieussec. He simply describes how his invention works: dropping a tiny dot of ink on the dial to measure a phenomenon. “Chrono” is related to the time, and “Graph” is about the writing.

If the chronograph invention was finalized at the end of the 19th century, Breitling created the first wristwatch integrating this complication in 1915, with a single push button. A second button for the reset will appear in 1934. And the first automatic chronograph movement will be created by Zenith in 1969 with the famous El Primero.


Mono-rattrapante, split second and totalizer

The split second complication was developed in two steps. In 1831 Thaddeus Winnerl creates the mono-rattrapante chronograph, with a single “rattrapante” hand to catch up the seconds hand when the time measurement is over.

Louis Frederique Perrelet develops the concept of the modern split second chronograph in 1928. It allows to measure split time. Press the push button and the two “rattrapante” hands will start at the same time. Press again and only one hand will stop while the other is still running. Once the time is measured, press a third time and the first hand will catch up the second hand. If this complication looks simple in a first place, it is a real technical challenge.

The last version of the chronograph is the totalizer which indicates in a sub dial long periods from 30 minutes up to 12 hours. This functionality was originally used by car drivers to calculate their average speed during a trip (before the cars were equipped with speedometers).

The flyback chronograph

Press the flyback pusher and the chronograph will reset and restart instantly. This is another sophisticated variant of the chronograph, achieved by Bretiling between 1924 and 1934. But the first commercial release of a flyback chronograph is attributed to Longines in 1936 with its famous caliber 13-ZN.


The Regatta chronograph

The regatta chronograph was created for specific needs in nautical sports. Indeed, racing boats can’t stand behind the start line without moving. They have to navigate behind this line until the countdown is over and the race starts. Regatta watches enable skippers to instantly have a look on the countdown so they can be ready to cross the line at the best moment.

The countdown can be displayed in a window on the dial, with specific hands, or on the bezel. Most of the time, the countdown is set to 10 minutes, and sometime you can have a precision of a second during the last minute. The first regatta watches appeared after 1900. It was a chronograph or a chronometer with an engraved scale of 5 or 10 minutes. But Aquastar launched the first dedicated watch in 1964. Then traditional watchmakers also released their own regatta chronograph, such as Rolex with the Yacht Master II, or Omega with the Seamaster 300 Racing Chronometer.


The recurrent scales on a chronograph

Most of the time, the chronograph has a scale on the bezel or on the dial to measure specific actions. Some watches may have several scales, offering the possibility to measure different kinds of actions with a unique watch. We will distinguish the speed scales and scale for medical purpose.

Speed scales:

The tachymeter gives the ability to read the speed by counting the time it takes a subject to travel a distance, in kilometer or miles by hour. Two levels tachymeters measure speeds below 60 km/h. Double tachymeters have two different scales to know the speed for one kilometer and for one hundred meters.

The telemetric scale is used to know the distance between an observation point and an event by the speed of sound

Medical scales:

The asthmometric scale allows to know the frequency of the breaths. The scale is often based on 5 breaths. Once the measurement is done, the dial indicates the frequency per minute.

The pulse scale allows to measure the number of cardiac pulses per minute. This scale is generally performed on 15 or 30 pulses. At the end of the measurement, the hand is stopped, and the dial indicates the frequency per minute.


We sincerely hope that this article will help you to become a doctor or a pilot. At least you will maintain your reputation of king of your kitchen! The purpose of this article is to increase our beloved readers culture, other will come later, so stay tuned !