Time Tellers: The History of the Chrono

Posted on July 19 2019

Time Tellers: The History of the Chrono

In this day and age, a stopwatch is accessible to pretty much all of us, overlooked by many as just one of the hundreds of functions digitally embedded into our smartphones. However, there was once a time where a timepiece that doubled as a stopwatch was ground-breaking.

The revolutionary addition found use in aviation, military operations, and even astronomy. This invention was the Chronograph.

A watch that combines the function of a stopwatch with a timekeeping display watch, by utilising an independent sweep second hand.

Chronographs are primarily used to record different time measurements, moon cycles, heart rate and more. Chronographs have separate buttons to stop, start, and reset the stopwatch complication, with the start button typically at the two and four o’clock position.

The name Chronograph derived from the Greek words ‘Chronos’ – the personification of time – and ‘graph’, meaning to write. The first modern Chronograph was created in 1816 by French watchmaker, Louis Moinet. Invented solely for use in union with astrological equipment, Moinet’s Chronograph could measure time accurate to 1/60th of a second – an unrivalled degree of precision at the time of its creation.

While Moinet’s watch is considered the earliest modern Chronograph, the first timepiece to be publicly marketed as a Chronograph was invented by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, watchmaker of the French King Louis XVII.

The king commissioned Rieussec to create a timepiece which he could use to record the lap time of his beloved horse races – and on his Majesties command – Rieussec created the first commercialised modern Chronograph in 1821.

Rieussec’s Chronograph composed of two faces, with one face using the kinetic energy of the Chronographs movement to move a small, inked needle. The needle then marked a circle on one of the faces which would be used to indicate the time elapsed.

Rieussec’s Chronograph, however, was unsuitable for multiple uses due to its thirst for ink. Swiss watchmaker, Adolphe Nicole made further developments to the Chronograph in 1844. He was the first to add a re-setting feature which allowed for successive measurements to be taken without ink.

This update was pivotal for the Chronograph, and before long, they were being used by the military to time artillery strikes, and in a variety of sports, especially running. Athletics were revolutionized by the Chronograph, with lap times now so accurate, athletes worked harder than ever to beat records by precise margins.

At this point, Chronographs were still just stopwatches, either encased in a small wooden box or round metal case, it wouldn’t be until the early twentieth century that Chronographic stopwatch functionality would be miniaturised and integrated into timekeeping wristwatches.

Swiss watch manufacturers, Longines built one of the earliest Chronograph wristwatches in 1913. It was a timepiece which doubled as a timekeeping display watch, with a stopwatch complication accurate to 1/5th of a second. Before long, other recognized watchmakers followed suit by producing their own Chronograph wristwatches. British maker Breitling introducing the first Chronograph with a separate pusher for operating the stopwatch complication.

A complication which added a whole new level of functionality to the Chronograph was the addition of a Tachymeter in the early twentieth century. The Tachymeter is a scale is marked out onto the bezel of a watch, which allows the wearer to calculate speed based on travel time (or vice versa measure distance travelled based on speed) by using mathematical equations, and the time measuring complications on the Chronograph. This saw the Chronograph become an invaluable tool within aviation, naval operations, and submarine navigation.

Fast forward to the late ’60s, and watch manufacturers were racing to release the first automatic Chronograph.

The modern Chronograph features three push buttons on the side of the face, which are used to control the stopwatch. The ‘start/stop’ button is located adjacent to two o’clock in the watch face, and is pushed once to begin – and stop – the stopwatch.

When the start button is pushed, it triggers a network of train wheels to turn in unison, recording the time elapsed until the button is pushed to stop the movement.

Here at Able & Co, we acknowledge the history of the Chrono through our Untouchable Series of watches that balances modern day fashion whilst still respecting the history of the Chrono. Shop the Untouchable Series now.

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