What the Hell is a Chronograph Watch?

Close-up of a chronograph complication on a watch dial
Image credit: Agê Barros on Unsplash

To become a watch enthusiast, as I’m confident anyone interested in watches will tell you, is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it can all be rather interesting and exciting. On the other, though, it tends to be wildly expensive, inordinately time-consuming, and more likely than not to alienate your loved ones by having you go on about calibres or whatever when all they’re trying to do is eat dinner in peace (The latter experience is universal, right? Asking for a friend).

If that weren’t enough, to be interested in watches is — in my experience anyway — to surrender oneself to what is essentially a permanent state of confusion. For instance, I think that when you get down to it, the existence and everyday proliferation of both quartz and mechanical watches is nothing short of miraculous, but under pain of death I couldn’t give you an even halfway decent account of how either of those actually works. Moreover, despite spending rather a lot of my time reading, writing, and talking about watches, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t have some version of the following set of thoughts: 

‘Is that how I’m supposed to pronounce [CHOOSE NAME OF ANY FANCY WATCH BRAND]?’ 

‘What on earth does a [SELECT RANDOM MECHANICAL WATCH PART] do?’ 

‘Will [INSERT NAME OF ROMANTIC PARTNER] ever forgive me if I buy another watch?’

Back of a vintage chronograph watch
Image credit: Nikita Burdin on Unsplash

It’s tough going being a watch fan. Without the aid of a search bar and an internet connection most of us would be thoroughly at sea all of the time. The horological landscape is littered with jargon and shibboleths. It’s all ‘amplitude’, ‘annual calendars’, and ‘anglage’ — and that’s just the start of the alphabet. We’ve barely even scratched the surface of anything in French yet. 

The good news, however, is that any one of these terms and concepts is typically much easier to grasp than their daunting names might otherwise suggest.

That brings us to the topic at hand. Just what exactly is a chronograph?

The answer is, as is so often the case, disarmingly simple: It’s a stopwatch. Or, somewhat more specifically, it’s a watch that does all of the things a regular watch would in addition to serving as a stopwatch. 

You’ll almost certainly have seen the type of timepiece I’m talking about. In addition to the features you might expect to see on a watch face (hands, hour markers, bezel, etc), chronograph watches have little additional dials that keep track of seconds, minutes, and hours, as well as two extra buttons at the 2 and 4 o’clock positions on the side of the case used to start, stop, and reset the chronograph mechanism. They also typically feature something called a tachymeter, which is a scale on the dial used to determine speed based on time (Just don’t ask me how, because I, like you, will just have to resort to using that aforementioned search bar).

Chronographs have been around since the early nineteenth century and their history offers a useful insight into the technology’s somewhat forbidding nomenclature. The word ‘chronograph’ derives from the Greek words ‘Chronos’, referring to the personification of time, and ‘graph’, which means to write. As it happens, the device long thought to be the first-ever chronograph did write time in quite a literal way. Invented in 1821 by Nicolas Rieussec, watchmaker to King Louis XVII of France, this early chronograph would start by dropping a spot of ink on a rotating paper disk and, once the timed event had come to an end (typically it was one of the king’s horse races), it would do the same again to record the elapsed time. 

Until as late as 2012 this was thought to be the earliest example of a chronograph. That is until a timepiece went up for auction at Christie’s which proved to be even older. Made in 1816 by Louis Moinet, this pocket watch was used by its creator to make astronomical observations and could measure time down to an impressive 60th of a second. Moreover, it showed that right from their inception chronographs didn’t exactly graph time, as such — although calling them ‘chronoscopes’ would hardly have proven self-explanatory. 

Rolex Daytona chronograph watch
Image credit: Ruru Lulu on Unsplash

In the early twentieth century, the chronograph — along with pretty much everything else in the watchmaking world — migrated from the pocket to the wrist. From here, the process of evolution proved pretty speedy. Longines lays claim to the first purpose-built wristwatch chronograph made in 1913. Two years later, Breiling introduced the first push-piece that was separated from the crown and placed at the 2 o’clock position, and so on. Soon, seemingly every watchmaker was getting in on the chronograph game.

It led to such iconic watches as the Omega Speedmaster, which was introduced in 1957 and just over a decade later accompanied Apollo astronauts to the moon and back, the Rolex Daytona, which arrived in 1963 and thanks in no small part to an endorsement by Paul Newman is now one of the most sought-after Rolex models, as well as the Heuer Carrera, which also dates to 1963 and is made by the brand that is perhaps most closely associated with chronograph watches to this day.

In 1969 — the same year that a handful of chronographs landed on the lunar surface and consequently ended the space race — the race to make the first automatic chronographs finally concluded when a bunch of watches developed by manufacturers like Heuer, Breitling, Buren, and others launched commercially. Today most chronographs on the market are still automatics, although the very finest examples continue to be hand-wound since they allow for the slimmest, sleekest designs without any automatic rotors getting in the way.

Vintage automatic chronograph watch
Image credit: Dwilliams851 / CC BY-ND 2.0

And that about covers it. If you’re looking for specifics about the internal functions of a chronograph, I can help save you the additional internet search by directing you here, but anything more involved than this proves well above my pay grade. Maybe a few more ill-advised watch purchases will get me across the line. In the meantime, I’m left to scratch my head at every French term in the horological handbook.

Speaking of which, can someone look up ‘Grande Sonnerie’, ‘foudroyante’, and ‘remontoir d’egalité and get back to me?