From timing athletic events to keeping time in CPR, the uses for a chronograph are nearly endless. And if you’ve been a watch collector for more than a week, you’ve probably heard of a chronograph. But where did chronographs come from and how long have they been present in the horological community? Let’s take a deep dive into the history of the chronograph.
The Origin of the Chronograph
Until 2013, horology historians thought they had the origin of the chronographs nailed down. Then in 2013, a new discovery literally changed history. Prior to that year, historians believed that French watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec invented the first chronograph in 1821, to aid in timing horse races to a more precise degree. Rieussec’s watch could measure time up to a tenth of a second, which was quite an impressive feat at the time.
Then in 2013 came a shocking discovery – a different French watchmaker had created a chronograph in 1816 – just years before Rieussec. That watchmaker, Louis Moinet, had designed his chronograph for astronomers and named it Compteur de Tierces (thirds timer). While both chronographs were similar in functionality, Moinet’s creation was significantly more precise, measuring time up to a 60th of a second. That level of precision was unheard of at that time; it was made possible by utilizing a very high-speed balance frequency of 216,000 vibrations per hour. This frequency was a mechanical marvel and was not beaten for nearly a century later.
More Technology Joins the Primary Chronograph Function
The original chronographs in 1816 and 1821 utilized a pusher combined into the crown that handled all start, stop, and reset functions. Just over 100 years later, Breitling began the trend of separating the start/stop from the other watch functions. In 1923, Breitling separated the start/stop from the reset by adding a pusher for the start/stop. Shortly thereafter, in 1934, a second pusher was added for reset.
In the mid-20th century, watchmakers began to add a tachymeter to the dial or bezel of chronographs, to aid in measuring speed. The tachymeters eventually evolved into a rotating tachymeter bezel, first used by Heuer in the late 1960’s.
Around the 1960’s and 1970’s, the quartz crisis brought the advent of digital watches. In 1975, SEIKO released the first digital multifunction watch, which included a chronograph. Brands later capitalized on the use of quartz movements, combining the visual elements of an analog watch and the function of a digital chronograph in an analog-digital (a.k.a. Ana-Digi) watch.
Fast forward to the present. Many timekeepers use phones or digital clocks to time sporting events. But for a true horologist, that would never do. To a watch fanatic, it’s a chronograph or the race is off! The beautiful thing about chronographs is that, at over 200 years old, they are among the oldest watch complications. The variety of chronographs available is massive – digital, analog, or a combination of the two. And ranging from quartz to automatic and even solar.
Grand Caliber Can Find Your Luxury Watch
Regardless of the specs your dream chronograph has, Grand Caliber can help you find your perfect timepiece. Luxury? We have it. Sporty? We have that too. Simple or crazy complicated? We have both. Reach out to us and we would be happy to help you find the chronograph of your dreams.