Count on me: Chronograph explained


Chronograph arguably holds one of the leading position in the list of the most common complications. And while it’s not very likely that the owners of such a piece  measure their sporting achievements or elevator trips on a daily basis, the function for precise measurements surely gives some weight and high-brow attitude to a watch. The interactive nature of the device has played a significant role in its popularity. Most complications allow you to enjoy the process or the result of their work, period. With a chrono, you’ll have to press the buttons, check the readings, or in other words,  be in the moment and have fun.

Some ten years ago, French watchmaker Nicolas-Mathieu Rieussec was widely considered the chronograph inventor. In 1821 he created a special device for measuring the time horses take to travel the prescribed race distances. Its second hand was equipped with a small inkwell that left a tiny black mark on the paper dial with a push of a button. A lot of improvements soon followed, including a movement by Austrian Joseph-Thaddeus Winnerl, considered the predecessor of a modern split-chronograph. Nevertheless, the principle and the name have been fully patented only on May 14, 1862 by the Swiss watchmaker Adolphe Nicole. Half a century later, in 1913, Longines produced the first wristwatch chronograph, and in 1933, the guys at Breitling added the essential final touch – the reset button.

However, there is no such thing as the ultimate truth in history of horology, some knowledge lost in ages past, still breaks through the surface from time to time. And in 2013 all the upper-mentioned status quo underwent a tremendous revision. In short, the independent brand, named after the great French watchmaker Louis Moinet, has purchased a previously unknown pocket chronograph of his creation at an auction. A careful examination as well as some paperwork from the archives dated the artifact back to 1816. So the pioneering status has moved from Rieussec to Moinet. According to the discovered documents, an avid astronomer Louis Moinet had created the piece with his own needs in mind and absolutely no intention of selling it. The guy was an avid astronomer, and needed a proper device for measuring the movement speed of celestials bodies. Thanks to the frequency of 216 000 vibrations per hour, it was capable of an incredible accuracy of up to 1/60 of a second. Despite some spoken degree of skepticism (1/60 seconds and 216,000 vibrations per hour in 1816? If Moinet has made it for himself, why did he sign a logo on the dial?), the watch world accepted the discovery.

Unlike its close relative a stopwatch, a chronograph is not a stand-alone unit, but an integrated part of a watch. There are quite a few chronograph modules that can be added to the existing watch movement, but still it serves its own purpose side by side with regular time telling. The most pure and traditional mono-pusher chronographs feature just one button for starting, stoping and reseting the counter. Chronographs with additional reset button are able to continue the measurement directly after the previous stop. Split-seconds chronographs are equipped with two hands for  monitoring two processes of different duration, and thus feature a third button. It fixes one hand while the other continues to move. Fly-back chronographs are used for serial measurements, done immediately one after the other: upon completion of one cycle, the pressed button instantly resets the result and starts counting the next one.

Generally speaking, the majority of chronographs use one of the two basic principles. The column wheel mechanism considered the most pure and historically important features a wheel with triangular teeth, looking very much like your typical chess rook or a medieval tower. When the user pushes the button the wheel rotates by one step, allowing the mechanism to perform one of the three consecutive actions: start, stop, and reset, or in some cases start and stop. This strict order was pretty much dictated by precautions: in the early stages of the technology, an attempt to nullify the result when the chrono was running could lead to a serious damage. The more modern cam mechanism is much more simple, efficient, and easy to maintain comparing to a column wheel. Basically, it’s a system of leverages interacting with each other, and in terms of functionality, it’s certainly by no means inferior to the elder brother.

There are also several ways of starting the chronograph mechanism operation with the traditional method of horizontal clutch being the first. The chronograph wheel comes in contacted with the main gear train with a the push of a button,. Despite its aesthetic perfection (watching the process through the transparent case back is a feast for the eyes), it suffers from a number of drawbacks. The teeth do not always perfectly match each other, and at the very start the hand can make a slight ‘jump’.

To solve this problem, a vertical clutch has been developed. The chronograph wheel is placed in parallel to the seconds-hand wheel and synchronizes with it via a clutch. All the upper mentioned principles can come in different combinations, so choice, as always, is up to you.

The tech-y appearance of the chronographs seems to attracts more and more buyers, and for a reason. Two or three, sub-dials and a bunch of additional hands quite naturally make something of a statement: ‘move along, a serious piece of technology here!’ And it surely fits the spirit of adventure-driven aesthetics and style. Maybe the urge to measure something important will push someone for competing in a race or start calculating the stars. After all it was an Omega Speedmaster helping Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land their spaceship to the Moon.