The world of horology is a treasure trove of intricate complications and innovations, each designed to showcase a watchmaker’s skill, intrigue their wearer, and elevate the art of timekeeping. Among these complications lies one with a history that is as rich and complex as its function: the chronograph.
A remarkable and iconic feat, the chronograph enables its wearer to precisely time events and, in conjunction with a pulsometer, tachymeter, or telemeter, solve mathematical calculations to figure out heart rates, average speeds, or average distances. However, as important as the chronograph has proven to be in watchmaking, its full history has only recently revealed itself. So, let’s uncover what we can.
Need to start with the basics? Check out: What is a chronograph and how does it work?
The Birth of the Chronograph
The chronograph, still regarded as an indispensable tool by watch enthusiasts, was born from the need to measure time accurately and independently of a watch’s standard seconds hand. With its ability to start, stop, and reset the timing function via user-friendly pushers, the chronograph quickly became a fundamental feature in modern watchmaking. However, that hasn’t always been the case.
For years, credit for creating the chronograph was attributed to Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, who, in 1821, was commissioned by the French King Louis XVIII to create a device that could time horse races. Rieussec’s solution was a machine that would drop ink onto a rotating dial to indicate how much time had passed. This machine was named the “Chronograph,” after the Greek words chronos (time) and graphein (to write). Up until just over a decade ago, we thought this was the world’s first chronograph, but we were wrong.
Like a lot of things in watchmaking history, there was more to the chronograph and its origins than met the eye. As it turned out, the story of Rieussec didn’t paint the whole picture – or ink the whole dial, so to speak. A groundbreaking revelation in 2013 shattered the conventional narrative and set the spotlight on Louis Moinet. While Moinet’s invention wasn’t exactly the chronograph we know today, in 1816, he crafted a pocket watch with three subdials and one pusher capable of measuring time down to an astonishing 1/60th of a second that he used with astronomical equipment.
Moinet’s creation operated at an unprecedented 30 Hz, far surpassing the 3–5 Hz of watch escapements at the time. Thus, not only was Moinet the rightful inventor of the chronograph by more than five years, but he also pushed the boundaries of horological engineering so much that his invention was not all that far removed from how a chronograph looks or operates in a modern timepiece today.
The Chronograph’s Evolution
Chronographs continue to retain and develop their significance to this day, finding their way into specialized tool watches tailored for various industries. Aviation, automotive racing, diving, the military, and even space exploration all owe a debt to the chronograph for enabling precise timekeeping in their respective endeavors. From measuring dive durations to calculating lap times, fuel consumption rates, and even timing 14-second burns to save the Apollo 13 Moon mission, the chronograph remains a versatile wrist-mounted calculator that has left an impressive mark on the wrists of those who wear it.
So, how did the chronograph evolve from Moinet’s pocket watch and become everything it is today? Well, that story sees a household name in watchmaking enter the fore: Breitling. Founded in 1884, Breitling quickly became known for their pocket watches, which often included chronograph complications. By 1893, they had sold 100,000 chronographs and stopwatches.
Then in 1913, headed by founder Leon Breitling’s son, Gaston, Breitling launched the first wrist-mounted chronograph. Featuring a single independent pusher at 2 o’clock, it looked a lot like the chronographs we have today. In 1934, Willy Breitling took things a step further and added a second pusher to the chronograph’s case at 4 o’clock, which was dedicated to resetting the chronograph hand to zero. This culminated in the iconic complication we know and love today.
The Modern Chronograph
Of course, the chronograph’s story does not end there. Powered by manual-winding movements from the beginning, there was another significant step forward for the chronograph: to become self-winding. This is where things get a little dramatic. By the mid-1960s, several brands had realized that creating the world’s first automatic chronograph was an accomplishment they wanted to call their own.
However, chronographs are actually an incredibly intricate complication, even though they are somewhat ubiquitous today. Rolex didn’t even have its own in-house chronograph movement until 2000, and Patek Philippe didn’t launch one until the early 2000s. So, it’s safe to say that making the world’s first automatic chronograph was no easy task.
In 1969, three contestants emerged as the front-runners in the race for the first automatic chronograph: Zenith, Seiko, and a partnership between Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton, and movement specialist Dubois Dépraz. Each party could be called a winner, depending on who you ask and what metric you use as your finish line.
Zenith publicly launched the first working automatic chronograph prototype, the El Primero, in January 1969, but deliveries to customers did not begin until autumn of that year. Seiko, who didn’t realize there was a race on account of not being in Switzerland, had their automatic chronograph, the ref. 6139, ready for sale by March 1969, but only for domestic Japanese customers. Sales outside of Japan didn’t begin until 1970. Finally, each of the Chronomatic Group’s brands launched their watches simultaneously at 5 pm on March 3, 1969, at press conferences in Geneva.
By the time the Basel Watch Fair began in early April, each of the group’s brands had 100 pieces to show the world, with deliveries to international customers starting in the summer of 1969 for Heuer, Hamilton, and Breitling. So, who gets to claim themselves as number one? That’s up to you.
Since the race of 1969, the chronograph has remained largely unchanged. Its base function is mostly the same, except for the introduction of chronograph complications such as the flyback, lap timer, and rattrapante – which are of equal complexity to a tourbillon. However, this is not to say that their impact on watchmaking hasn’t been profound. After all, the chronograph is the one complication whose function is most closely related to the spirit of watchmaking: the measurement of time.