The Short History of Chronograph

Written By: Anantari

It is important to understand at the outset that “chronograph” is not the name of a watch. Rather, it is an additional function of a watch – a complication. This instance counts hours, minutes, and seconds independently of the time display on the dial. So basically it is a stopwatch.

Depending on the range of functions, the chronograph has at least one hand that can be started, stopped and reset to measure a specific length of time in fifths, tenths or even hundredths of a second. Although the faces of chronograph watches vary to some extent, there are usually two subdials for minutes and hours (usually 30 minutes and 12 hours) that accumulate the number of seconds that the chronograph center hand moves.

Chronographs are very popular today, especially for men's watches. However, the crucial technical basis for this type of watch was developed more than a century and a half ago. Each model not only offers its wearer an additional stop function, but also embodies an interesting piece of watch history.

What is a chronograph?

A chronograph is by definition a time recorder and usually means a wristwatch with a stopwatch function. A chronograph can be used like a stopwatch to measure periods of time. It also shows the time and often the date.

In addition, many chronographs have an additional scale for calculating speeds, for example. The tachymeter scale is best suited for this and can be found on numerous models. Telemeter and pulsometer scales, on the other hand, are much rarer. In the past, physicians often used the latter to determine the pulse rate of their patients. You can use a telemeter scale to calculate distances. For example, how far away an approaching thunderstorm is from you.

How does a chronograph work?

Operating a chronograph is extremely simple: one pusher starts and stops the measuring process, the other resets the stop hands to zero. Most of the time, both pushers are on the right side of the case – the one for starting and stopping at 2 o'clock and the one for resetting the hands at 4 o'clock.

A central second hand usually shows the elapsed stop seconds and fractions of a second. This only moves when you start the stopping process. So if you don't want to measure times, you can leave the chronograph function switched off. Constantly running chronograph hands unnecessarily burden the entire movement and contribute to faster wear of the components.

The History of Chronograph

It is interesting simply because it is ultimately disputed who actually invented the chronograph. Anyone who deals more intensively with this part of watch history will quickly realize that it is ultimately a child with many fathers. Because numerous technical innovations were necessary before watchmakers were able to build a "real" chronograph. This differs from other watches in the stop function, but it is not a pure stopwatch because the movement is not paused when the watch is stopped. This makes it possible to measure specific times while the display of the current time continues to run unchanged.

The ability to record specific times is what gave the timepiece its name. Because this is made up of the Greek words “chromos” and “grapho”, which means "time" or "I write". Adolphe Nicole, who developed the so-called zero setting heart in 1844 and applied for a patent for this invention, is often referred to as the inventor. However, the Englishman George Graham actually found a technical solution as early as 1720 that allowed times to be estimated with an accuracy of around one-sixteenth of a second. He can therefore justifiably be counted among the inventors of the chronograph.

The first pocket watch with a chronograph function was presented to the public in 1862 by the Frenchman Henri Féréol Piguet. Although there had already been pocket watches around 60 years earlier in which the second hand could be stopped, the pausing process on these models still led to the entire movement stopping. If you wanted to use such a watch to measure intermediate times, this required adding the stopped time.

Today, however, Piguet's pocket watch with a second hand that can be stopped is also referred to as a "false chronograph". Credit for creating the first "real" chronograph goes to the Parisian watchmaker Nicolas-Mathieu Rieussec, even though his design initially had relatively little in common with today's wrist chronographs.Rather, his model was a watch that was able to actually "write down" measured times. For this purpose, he had installed a small recorder on the dial, which recorded the times measured as the hands turned by means of small and large lines. In 1822, Rieussec applied for a patent for his invention.

Another important development step followed in 1831, when Joseph ThaddäusWinnerl developed a watch whose second hand could be stopped separately. Winnerl, an Austrian employee of the Breguet manufactory, also invented a chronograph variant in which two superimposed second hands could be stopped one after the other so that the measured time span could be determined as the difference. Technically, this requires the installation of two separate but coupled stop mechanisms. Such a double-hand mechanism can still be found today in various high-quality mechanical watches and is referred to as a rattrapante, split-seconds hand or trailing second. This look at watch history shows that it was a long way to today's quartz and automatic models, and there are a number of inventions that have made this development possible.

Once a way had been found with the zero setting heart to have the second hand return to the zero position at the push of a button, the chronographs already had an essential functional feature that is still typical of them today. In 1868 Auguste Baud began to build the additional mechanism for a stop hand as a cadrature on the clockwork side, which is still common today.

A few decades later, as a result of a development at Breitling, watches worn on the arm finally acquired the characteristic appearance that most of them still have today: a wristwatch with two separate pushers. One pusher is used to start or stop the watch, while the other is used to reset the stop hand to zero.


A modern mechanical wrist chronograph is usually an automatic model, but there are also numerous quartz watches with a chronograph function. Initially, parallel to the development of watches without a stop mechanism, possibilities were sought to also equip chronographs with an automatic winding mechanism. Already in 1946 Albert Piguet had developed a corresponding prototype together with Lémania. However, it was to be more than twenty years before the first automatic chronograph was ready for series production.

In 1969, three manufacturers fought a tight race for the first presentation of a series-produced automatic model. In the end, Zenith's “El Primero” movement was able to narrowly beat Seiko with the caliber 6138/39 and a cooperation between Heuer, Breitling, Dubois-Dépraz and Büren. However, with the advent of quartz watches in the 1970s, automatic timepieces were almost in danger of being pushed out again. After all, a quartz model is not only significantly cheaper to produce, but also offers much more extensive functionality than an automatic model. In the course of the general renaissance of high-quality mechanical watches, however, automatic chronographs have also enjoyed great popularity since the mid-1980s and are valued far more highly by lovers of high-quality watches than quartz watches with a stopwatch function.

It is therefore not surprising that almost all major watch manufacturers regularly bring new collections onto the market. These are often wristwatches with an emphatically sporty design, but there are also numerous masterpieces that correspond in style to a classic dress watch.


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