Archives & heritage

The chronograph: an expression of modern times


January 2017

The chronograph: an expression of modern times

The chronograph, an ingenious invention of modern times, has taken the measure of human progress for nearly two centuries.


he etymology of the word comes from the combination of two Greek roots: chronos (time) and grapho (writing). To write time is also to write a record of the history of the world.


A tale of astronomy…

The scientific advances of the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, notably in astronomy, medicine, engineering and industry, necessitated the measuring of fractions of seconds. In this field, as in others, there were numerous inventors and solutions.

The chronograph: an expression of modern times
Chronograph measuring sixtieths of a second by Louis Moinet. Very high-frequency instrument: 216,000 vibrations/hour, 30 Hz. Ruby escapement by Moinet. The counters are reset to zero using a separate corrector stylus. Power reserve indicator on back of chronograph approximately 30 hours. Upper plate signed Louis Moinet. D. 57.7 mm; th. 9 mm.

Following unfruitful attempts by John Arnold, Louis Moinet (1768-1853), a Parisian watchmaker who was also a keen astronomer, invented an instrument that measured sixtieths of a second, which he called a compteur de tierces (“counter of thirds”). The “third” refers to the third subdivision of the hour on a basis of 60 after the minute and the second, and is used in astronomy.
This counter was produced in collaboration with a watchmaker from the workshop of Abraham Louis Breguet in 1815-1816. In terms of its performance, ergonomics and the readability of its dial, this instrument prefigures the chronometric devices to one-fiftieth and one-hundredth of a second created by Heuer in 1916, a century ahead of its time. As noted in his Traité d’horlogerie, Louis Moinet stated that his ‘counter of thirds’, designed for astronomical purposes, was available to anyone who wished to produce large numbers of it. This offer seems not to have been taken up. And yet it was indeed the very first chronograph.

The chronograph: an expression of modern times

… and horses

The Jockey Club was founded in England in 1751. In the late eighteenth century, the upper echelons of English society discovered racing, in which men, horses or dogs vied for victory. The spectators bet on the winner. At the same time, the breeders were looking to measure their horses’ performance. On 4 November 1799, Ralph Gout filed a patent for a pedometer watch, a device designed to count the number of paces taken by a pedestrian or a horse over a given time. Mounted on a horse’s saddle, it added up the total number of paces taken by the mount, or if fixed to the leg, by a walker. When placed on a carriage wheel, it was able to count the rotations.

The chronograph: an expression of modern times
Half-brother of Nicolas Joseph Rieussec, one of the founding members of the Jockey Club of France and the Society for the Encouragement of Improvement in Horse Breeds, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec tested the chronograph of his invention in 1821 on a racecourse. Inking chronograph by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, Paris, 1821. Mahogany box, white enamel rotating dial, escapement movement. Left, the mechanism. La Chaux-de-Fonds, International Watchmaking Museum.

On 1 September 1821, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec (1781-1866), watchmaker to the king, timed a series of horse races on the Champ de Mars in Paris with the aid of an instrument of his own invention. The minutes of the French Royal Academy of Science dated 1821 and signed by Antoine-Louis Breguet and Gaspard de Prony report that on that day, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec presented a ‘timepiece or counter of distance covered’, which the Academy called a ‘seconds chronograph’. On 9 March 1822, he obtained a five-year patent for it. The instrument is appropriately named since it deposited a drop of ink on the enamel dial at the start and end of each measurement. Inking was then abandoned, resulting in the advent of the chronoscope (improperly called ‘chronograph’), first of all in a pocket, then a wrist version. After that, history speeded up. On 9 February 1822 in England, Frédérick Louis Fatton (1812- 1876), a pupil of Abraham Louis Breguet established in London, obtained a patent (no. 4645) for an inking chronograph, and on 27 September 1822 a second patent for a fixed-dial system.


Chronographs and the art of medicine

Even back in classical antiquity, Greek, Alexandrian and Roman physicians noticed that human life was subject to a regularly beating pulse. Around 300 BC, Herophilos of Chalcedon discovered that the heart was responsible for it and devised a means of counting the number and rate of heartbeats using a water clock. In the first and second centuries AD, the Greek physician Discorides emphasised the importance of the water clock in medicine, and Galen of Pergamon used it to measure fever and pulse.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the mechanic-physicians created clocks indicating medical, astronomical and astrological measurements, which they consulted before practising their art. Several of the first monumental clocks that indicated the signs of the zodiac and the position of the planets automatically also had a painting of a human silhouette called the Aderlassmann, on which the points for blood-letting were marked.

This indicated the correlation between parts of the body and the times of the year most favourable for a surgical operation. During the Renaissance, Galileo recommended the use of a pendulum to measure heart rate and irregular heartbeat, and even built a special instrument for the purpose, which he called a pulsilogus.

The research of doctors William Harvey and Stephen Hales heralded the age of precision measurement in medicine and corroborated the theory of Sir John Floyer, who prescribed measuring the pulse using a watch with a seconds hand. To this end, he created a pocket pulsometer in 1705. Later, watches with a dead-seconds hand were a valuable aid to practitioners in establishing diagnoses.

It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that watchmakers invented genuine medical chronographs, the originality of which lay not in their mechanism, but in the graduation of their dials.
The pulsometer, also called a sphygmomanometer, counts the number of heartbeats per minute. The asthmometer, also called a pneumograph, counts the number of breaths per minute. These chronographs, the medical functions of which could be grouped together on a single dial, were designed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in the 1920s were miniaturised for wearing on the wrist.

Chronographs and engineers

Engineering being such a vast domain, during the course of history watchmakers have had to design chronographs with special chronometric scales to suit the specific problem at hand.

The following instruments resulted:

  • Tachymeters, which mark the speed of a moving body expressed in the local units in use at the time of its production: miles/hour, versts, kilometres/hour or some other unit.
  • Rangefinders, very useful to the military but also to meteorologists.
  • Tachoscopes, which are crucial for the correct adjustment of machines and for controlling production.
  • Productometers, which show the number of items produced in an hour.
  • Split-seconds chronographs, which today are used in sport, but which for a long time served to time events of differing durations but all starting at the same time in a single experiment.

Depending on what they are researching, engineers need instruments that split the second into larger or smaller portions. Chronometric scales are usually graduated into hundredths, fiftieths, twentieths, sixteenths, tenths or fifths of a second according to the application.
As soon as watches had attained a sufficient degree of precision regardless of how far the spring was wound, the dials were equipped with time measurement totalisers, generally up to thirty minutes.

On contemporary wrist-chronographs, a seconds totaliser records measurements up to a maximum of twelve hours. However, a handful of pocket models are capable of recording measurements of time up to twenty-four hours. Most of these chronographs, manufactured by specialists such as A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, H. Moser & Cie and Union Glashütte, are the result of technological upheaval and improvements in productivity generated by the industrial revolution.

They were of great assistance to Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), an American economist and engineer, in designing his scientific method of work organisation. Some chronographs, all developed in the nineteenth century, were transformed into wristwatches. Expressing the needs of their times, some graduations – those of the Omega chronographs, for example – are a reminder of the kinds of things then measured: the speed per hour of homing pigeons, trams, hippomobiles, trotting or galloping horses, development times for photographic prints; while others remain shrouded in mystery because many of the applications for which they were intended have now disappeared.

Chronographs and the military

Time is fundamental to ballistic calculations and analysing the use of firearms. Although the speed of the projectiles is too high be measured with a conventional chronograph, chronographs equipped with a telemetric scale were for a long time used by gunners to adjust the range of cannon-fire. Range-finders are instruments used to measure the distance between an observer and a visible and audible phenomenon. The principle was based on the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound, arbitrarily defined at 333 metres per second at a temperature of 5-10°C. When applied to the direction indicated by a compass placed on an ordnance survey map, the distance shown on the dial provided a means of locating the enemy cannon and if need be, adjusting the return fire.
Today, this instrument is used for peaceful applications and can provide valuable help to anyone at sea or on land seeking shelter from an approaching storm…

Chronographs and scientists

The improvement in the precision of astronomical observations is due to watchmaking in general, and to the chronograph in particular.

Until the Renaissance, various instruments were used to observe the meridian passage of the stars. The use of the telescope by Galileo from 1609 onwards revolutionised the technique of observing the stars. Until the nineteenth century, to determine the time of a star’s meridian passage (the vertical plane of the place of observation when oriented north-south), astronomers used what was known as the “eye and ear” method: after reading the time on a clock or chronometer with a pendulum beating the seconds, they counted the number of beats until the moment when the star reached the centre of the instrument’s field of vision while keeping their eye glued to the viewfinder.

The invention of the chronograph rendered this method obsolete, since all the observer had to do was stop the chronoscope, manually first all, and subsequently with the aid of an electric switch. The chronoscope soon gained the addition of a tape on which the results were recorded graphically. It was notably thanks to more and more accurate measuring devices that certain characteristics of the Earth were discovered, the imperfectly spherical shape and the minute variations in speed of which affect calculations of longitude and latitude. The solution to this problem, which was vital for sailors, was found by the English watchmaker, John Harrison, in 1761 thanks to his precision chronometers.

One century later, in the nineteenth century, the chronograph, with its three functions – start, stop and reset – was still unrivalled when it came to accurately determining a given point in time or space, whether at sea or on land. Together with the compass, the thermometer and the barometer, it was the instrument of choice for the great explorers.

"The culmination of fundamental advances in watchmaking and the point of departure for new research, the chronograph, when the idea of graphically recording time was abandoned, gradually over the decades became a chronoscope – time you could watch passing, and count. First of all on a pocket watch, then on a wristwatch. The chronograph would accompany the industrial revolution every step of the way, right down to the minutest detail of work organisation. The companion of engineers as well as astronomers, scientists, doctors, gunners and explorers, no domain can do without one when it comes to expressing the present moment. As our taste for free time intensifies, it can be found in every sports discipline, individual or team, and over and above its prime function of measuring short times is turning into an identifying code of modern humanity.
A humanity which, having mastered technique and speed, now thinks it can master time by stopping and starting a magical mechanism of rare beauty and of a complexity which reflects human intelligence."

Franco Cologni, taken from the preface to Le Chronographe

Chronographs and athletes

The first University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge took place in 1829. On that occasion, the competitors were timed to a quarter of a second, the balance of the chronographs of the time vibrating at 14,400 vph. In sports, fifths of a second (18,000 vph) were for a long time considered to be the smallest unit compatible with the reaction time required for a human timekeeper to start and stop a chronograph.

The chronograph: an expression of modern times

Today’s circular tachymetric scales usually indicate speeds of between sixty and four hundred. However, the spiral tachymeters on the most recent wristwatches allow a range of measurement from 20 to one thousand kilometres an hour.
In 1912, the Stockholm Olympic Games experimented with photographic counters capable of distinguishing tenths of a second. The hundredth of a second was used in 1924 at the Paris Olympic Games. However, the International Amateur Athletics Federation refused to recognise the validity of the results, taking the view that the human eye should continue to distinguish the winner. At the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, manual chronoscopes were abandoned in favour of photographic and electrical procedures. Nevertheless, from 1892 and perhaps even earlier, certain sports competitions were timed using electrically triggered chronographs, of which Mathias Hipp (1813-1893) was a pioneer. They mark the start of another story, as they took over where mechanical watchmaking technology had attained its limits.

(*) Excerpts. Originally published for the exhibition Le Chronographe, Expression des Temps Modernes, held by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie in 2007–2008, and in the book entitled La Conquête du Temps, 2nd edition. In collaboration with Grégory Gardinetti.

The Europa Star Newsletter