The world of watchmaking is filled with an incredibly vast array of complications that operate any multitude of tasks. From gravity-defying tourbillons to minute repeaters chiming the time to Dual Time GMTs to help keep track of your friends across the globe, watchmakers have proven that they are a rather creative bunch of people. Perhaps one of the most iconic and distinguished complications is the chronograph, but what is it?
A chronograph is a stopwatch function that allows its user to time events more accurately and separately from the normal running seconds hand – without having to take their eyes off what they are timing. Chronographs can be started, stopped, reset by simply pressing on the pushers found on the side of the case, and they can even be used to make intricate calculations when combined with tachymeter scales (for calculating average speeds, telemeter scales (for calculating distances) and pulsation scales (for calculating heart rates)
When we think of the humble wristwatch, we usually think of timing things. After all, is that not why it exists? The chronograph represents this utilitarian design philosophy perfectly, and as such, has become an essential part of watchmaking ever since its creation.
The Chronograph's History
The chronograph's history is a rather interesting story and one that we have only recently managed to uncover thanks to some recent discoveries. Up until 2013, it was thought that Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec created the chronograph in 1821 at the request of the French King Louis XVIII. The story goes that the King wanted some way to time horse during races, so he commissioned Rieussec to create a device that would do precisely that. Rieussec created a machine that would drop ink on a rotating dial to indicate how much time had passed. This machine was named the "Chronograph" after the Latin words Chronos, for 'time' and Graphein, for 'to write.' This historical inaccuracy gave us what we thought was the first chronograph.
As we discovered in 2013, the first chronograph was invented five years before this, in 1816 by Louis Moinet, to aid his astronomy studies. Moinet's chronograph rewrote the history books. His chronograph was a pocket watch with three subdials that could measure up to an impressive 1/60th of a second. To achieve this, he needed an incredibly high-frequency escapement, which we did not know had been created until about 100 years later. As it so happens, Moinet's original chronograph ran at an astonishing 30Hz, or 216,000vph. To put that into context, a regular watch escapement runs at about 3Hz or 21,600vph – a mere 10x slower than Moinet's 200+ year-old invention. So not only was Moinet the actual creator of the chronograph, but he also created faster movements than we had ever thought possible at the time – an astonishing feat of engineering and watchmaking talent.
How Are Chronographs Used Today?
With the utility that chronographs offer, it can only be expected that they have been used for an array of specific functions. Chronographs have been mainly adapted into tool watch designs, namely the aviation industry (pilot's watches), automotive industry (racing watches), and the diving industry (diver's watches) to time any such number of events that a wearer might encounter. From timing dives and decompression phases to timing laps around a track to timing precise periods of a given speed to measure the distance a plane has covered to be used to calculate fuel consumption rates, the chronograph was essentially an early wrist-mounted calculator or smartwatch.
Legendary ExamplesWhile the chronograph's utility has sadly diminished thanks to the creation of digital technology, some legendary chronographs remain as iconic today as they always have been, and these are three of our favorites.
Released in 1969, the Heuer Monaco was the first automatic chronograph released on the market. Developed by the so-called Chronomatic group of Breitling, Heuer, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz, this movement was called the Calibre 11. However, there is controversy as Zenith announced they had created their automatic chronograph, the El Primero, before the Calibre 11 made it to market. Still, they didn't put it into a watch until after Heuer. Nonetheless, the Heuer Monaco was made famous by the actor Steve McQueen and has become one of the most recognizable and iconic chronographs of all time. Tied particularly closely to Formula 1 and one of its most legendary circuits, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Heuer Monaco is, without doubt, an iconic chronograph.
Another iconic chronograph, if not the most iconic, is the Rolex Daytona. Released in 1963, the Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 would later become one of the most famous watches in the world after it had previously stumbled into obscurity as other chronographs outshone it during the '60s. Designed purely for automotive racing, the Daytona was initially known as the Cosmograph and only became known as the Daytona after Rolex had become timekeepers for the recently opened Daytona International Speedway racetrack and named the watch in honor of the American racing track. The Daytona has since been catapulted to fame by Paul Newman, the Hollywood actor and race car racing legend, with his own Daytona fetching $17.75 million at auction in 2017. The Daytona has consistently ranked as one of, if not the Rolex's most sought-after Rolex model, with waiting times reaching far into the 5-year mark.
Forever known as the 'Moonwatch,' the Omega Speedmaster is the watch that accompanied the first men to the moon in 1969 during NASA's Apollo missions. Released in 1957 as a racing watch, the Speedmaster was a direct competitor to the Daytona but ended up winning the best accolade of all – the approval of NASA during a time when the space race was its hottest. After a long series of tests on numerous watches from several brands, the Speedmaster was deemed the best watch to accompany the astronauts to the moon in their unprecedented mission, where the unknown lay before them. Following on from this, the Speedmaster's iconic design, unique history, and legendary place within watchmaking canon have allowed it to remain as one of the most iconic chronographs on the market.
There are indeed more iconic and legendary chronograph models like the Breitling Navitimer, Heuer Carrera, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore, and many, many more. Still, we couldn't possibly go through them all. With the chronograph's undisputed importance to the development of horology, we can only appreciate the impact this humble complication has had on our industry and so many of the watches we know and love.