In 1821, Nicolas Rieussec patented his chronograph. It was housed in a box.
Chronograph watches are great functional timepieces that not only tell the time, but also actually time all of those outdoor activities you indulge in – swimming, jogging, rowing, and more. Here, we outline the basics about what exactly a chronograph watch is and how it functions. Keep in mind that entire books have been written about chronographs, so we take just a cursory glance so you can better understand their use.
Further improvements were made to chronographs in the 1820s.
Essentially, a chronograph is a watch that measures and records specific intervals of time, ranging from a fraction of a second to hours – such as a race, a test, dive times, etc. The Greek translation of chronograph is time writer, and the first patented chronograph watch was invented in 1821 by Nicolas Rieussec, although recent historical findings indicate that watchmaker Louis Moinet may have made his own version of a chronograph before Rieussec made and patented his. Either way, the patented Rieussec chronograph (generally credited as the first) used ink to measure dots on the dial at the stop of an event. His device consisted of two dials and was encased in a large box.
Today, we have come a long way in our mechanical prowess. Today’s watches feature small subdials on the full dial – and within each subdial, a different measurement is tracked: hours or minutes. Seconds are often run off of a main central seconds timer and the watch usually features a subdial for the continuous running of the seconds used in keeping time vs. tracking time intervals. The very distinctive look of a chronograph dial, with its harmoniously balanced subdials, is often much of the allure of these watches.
Chronographs generally feature stop, start and return-to-zero functions that are controlled by pushing the chronograph buttons. Some watches have these functions all working off of a single pusher (called single- or mono-pusher chronographs) while others have two pushers that are usually situated above and below the watch crown on the case side.
In these watches, the chronograph timing function is activated by pushing the start button at 2:00 to start recording the time and by pushing the same button again, to stop the recording of the timed event. Once the time is recorded and read by the wearer, he can return the tracking hands back to zero by pushing the button at 4:00, thereby resetting the mechanism. Some watches also offer a “fly-back function” (referred to as flyback chronographs), wherein, the hand flies back to zero automatically.
There are also more complex and sophisticated chronographs, such as Split-Seconds Chronographs (also referred to as Rattrapantes). These watches have two second hands, one of which splits, or appears to divide, from the other so that they can act independently of one another. This technology allows the timing of several events that start at the same time, but have different durations, such as when timing multiple runners in a race. The more complex the chronograph, the more expensive it is.
In addition to regular chronograph watches, there are some high-precision mechanical chronographs referred to as column-wheel chronographs. Whereas in modern chronographs, the functions operate via a series of cams that are added to the base caliber, the mechanism inside a column-wheel chronograph is integrated into the watch and is configured differently. A column-wheel chronograph consists of a toothed mechanism that features notches on the side into which levers slide, engaging the different timing mechanisms. The raised portions of the notches are called columns (hence the name column-wheel chronograph).
The movement of the 1815 Louis Moinet chronograph.
A chronograph should not be confused with a Chronometer (a movement that is certified by an observatory to meet several very stringent conditions), though some chronographs can also be chronometers. We will cover the chronometer subject alter this summer. Meanwhile, stop in and see our myriad of quartz and mechanical chronographs and try them out for yourself.