CHRONICLES OF CHRONOGRAPH. Almost two centuries from the first creation, chronographs are the most recognizable yet often misunderstood watch complication
Parts of a Louis Moinet chronograph
For an average bloke looking for a watch, “chronograph” might sound like just another overhyped technical term—a fancy marketing catchphrase meant to lead the unwary into spending more money on an artificial trait. (Or people mistake “chronograph” for “chronometer”—which is an entirely different concept altogether.)
Perhaps the confusion lies in the mechanical chronograph’s deceptively simple nature: It is a watch with an integrated stopwatch. There are, of course, a number of very good reasons behind the cachet of owning and wearing a well-made chronograph on the wrist.
An early chronograph by Louis Moinet
The word “chronograph” comes from the Greek word “chronos” and “graphin,” which respectively means time and writing. And yes, there was a bit of actual writing involved in the early versions of chronograph: Elapsed time was marked on the dial with a pen.
The chronograph as we now know it today was first created in 1816 by Louis Moinet, a celebrated French horologist who called his invention a compteur de tierces. This was followed by the first commercial chronograph in 1821, developed by Mathieu Rieussec, to be used as a timekeeper at horse races at Paris’ famous Champ-de-Mars. This also marked the first time that the term chronograph was used, coined by the Académie des sciences, or the French Academy of Sciences.
Mathieu Rieussec’s chronograph
Mathieu Rieussec would then introduce further improvements, primarily in 1837, when issuing a patent that simplified the core mechanisms to allow for smaller chronographs, combined the chronograph and watch movements into a single case, and, perhaps most importantly, introduced a design that used a fixed dial and a moving chronograph hand.
Many more innovations soon followed suit, including the current reset feature standard (developed by Adolphe Nicole in 1844) and a moving bezel (introduced by Heuer in 1958, more than a quarter of a century before the brand transformed into TAG Heuer). Speaking of Heuer, the company also co-developed the first automatic or self-winding
chronograph (known as Chrono-matics) in 1969 along with Breitling and Hamilton.
The 1960s was also the era that cemented the chronograph’s popularity as the “cool guy’s timepiece.” Formula 1 racers began strapping on Heuer chronographs when on the track, while astronauts from the Apollo program, which made a trip to the moon, could be seen sporting Omega Speedmasters.It doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Steve McQueen wearing a Heuer chronograph in 1971 movie “Le Mans”
“The defining characteristic of a mechanical chronograph is the extra sub-dials and push-buttons along the side and top of the case”
THE WORKINGS OF A TIME WRITER
Chronographs are actually the most recognizable complication (i.e., feature beyond displaying time) seen on watches after the 1960s. But, again, they are also one of the least understood.
The defining characteristic of a mechanical chronograph is the extra sub-dials and push-buttons (sometimes referred to as “pushers”) along the side and top of the case, which are used to start, stop, and reset the stopwatch. When the top pusher is pressed, the chronograph comes to life: The seconds hand starts making its way around the dial, and every lap is marked by the chronograph minute sub-dial. Some models can record intervals up to 30 minutes, while more complicated chronographs might feature additional sub-dials that allow for recording up to a 12-hour period.
Pushing the top button a second time stops the timing, and pressing the bottom pusher resets the timer. And that’s chronographs in a nutshell. Of course, this only explains the basic workings of a standard chronograph. As chronographs began seeing widespread use in many different fields, the watchmaking industry responded by developing a wide range of models with unique features that greatly expanded the functionality of these devices.
Felix Baumgartner wearing a 2013 Zenith El Primero
“The 1960s was also the era that cemented the chronograph’s popularity as the cool guy’s timepiece”
TYPES OF CHRONOGRAPHS
First and foremost is the flyback chronograph—named as such because the seconds hand can rapidly “fly back” to zero (as opposed to spinning clockwise all the way back to zero). More importantly, the elapsed seconds hand can be stopped, reset, and restarted by pushing a single button (as opposed to pushing one button to stop the timing, returning the hand to zero with a second push, and restarting with a third). This function is particularly favored by airplane pilots (especially those flying older planes that aren’t chock-full of advanced avionics) who need to make quick calculations in rapid successions.
Next we have the double chronograph, also known as the rattrapante, which has two (sometimes more) seconds hands. The multiple seconds hands come in play when recording split or lap times: Press the start pusher, and the hands will start sweeping together, one superimposed over the other; press the split-seconds hand pusher (usually located at 8 or 10 o’clock position) and one of the hands will stop; press the pusher a second time and the stopped hand will catch up with the sweeping hand. This allows the user to record two separate times down to the second—a handy feature for aspiring athletes and coaches.
Then we have chronographs equipped with a metered bezel—that is, a bezel (either fixed or rotatable) with specific scales meant to aid in calculating events that happen quickly. The most popular metered bezel would be the tachymeter, used to compute speed as well as machine output. Then we also have the telemeter for measuring distances (for example, starting the chronograph when you see the flash of a lightning bolt and stopping when you hear the thunder will give you an approximate distance to where it’s striking), the pulsimeter for measuring heart and/or respiration rate, and the decimal chronograph that is used for everything from statistical analysis to industrial timing.
Finally, we have a wide range of specialized chronographs such as diving chronographs, which feature basic functionality but with added features that allow it to be operated at extreme depths, including luminous dials or diving bezels that can help divers calculate their remaining air supply.
Hublot Big Bang Unico Special Unique Piece
BESTSELLING WRITERS OF TIME
Today, quartz watches that cost less than a cab ride through town can time anything down to tenths of a second, and even the cheapest smartphone can record dozens of laps at the tap of a button. Yet, mechanical chronographs are still favored by medical professionals and military commanders alike, as well as timepiece connoisseurs. Maybe it’s the level of interaction between the user and the watch; maybe it’s the technical prowess and micro-engineering that has gone into the creation of each and every piece; or perhaps it’s the perfect balance between beauty and utility. Likely, it’s all of those—as exemplified by these stunning representatives of the chronograph watch category.
It’s one of the most iconic watches in the world, having been part of lunar missions, and worn by none other than Buzz Aldrin during the first moon landing. This is the only watch that has made it through NASA’s extreme durability tests, which includes zero gravity and extreme temperature swings. It simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Named for the eponymous race that is still sponsored by Rolex, this watch actually has fewer integrated components than most chronographs. But, whatever it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in reliability and its long history as a favorite among top-tier racers.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin wearing an Omega Speedmaster on the moon
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph
The Offshore collection was introduced as a sportier and more rugged rendition of the legendary Royal Oak line, originally designed by the late, great Gérald Genta. The bane of the aforementioned Rolex Daytona, the Royal Oak Offshore is a favorite among celebrities and high rollers.
The watch of choice of travelers and pilots, the Breitling Chronomat can track three different time zones and can measure time lapses in quarter second increments.
Hublot Big Bang
Hublot is a relatively new name in the world of watchmaking, yet the 2005 launch of the Big Bang tripled the orders for the brand. It is a prime example of “fusion” watches combining gold and rubber in one superb package. This year, Hublot launches special Big Bang pieces during the brand’s new campaign “Hublot Loves Football,” in celebration of FIFA World Cup 2014.
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