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The Origins of… - The Chronograph

The Origins of… The Chronograph

The chronograph is one of the most popular watchmaking complications, along with the calendar, and yet very few of us use it in our daily lives. The ability to measure short time intervals is nevertheless its raison d’être

To find the origins of the chronograph (not to be confused with “chronometer”, which is a high-precision certification) we need to take ourselves back to the turn of the 19th century, where we find Louis Moinet.

This accomplished astronomer, watchmaker and painter was born in Bourges in 1768. In 1816, with the help of a watchmaker who worked for Abraham-Louis Breguet, he came up with a “Compteur de Tierces” (counter of thirds), which was a mechanical instrument for measuring 1/60th of a second. In this context, a tierce or third, is the third-order subdivision of an hour, after minutes and seconds, used for taking astronomical measurements. The avant-garde device operated at a rate of 30 Hz, an astonishing feat for the time, and an achievement that would remain unmatched for many years.

The Chronograph

Compteur de Tierces © Louis Moinet

In his Treatise on Horology, Louis Moinet noted that his invention was freely available for the use of anyone who wished. Astonishingly, no one availed themselves of this technical marvel. It was not until 1 September 1821 that a certain Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, horologer to the king, timed a horse race on the Champ de Mars in Paris using an instrument of his own design. This device, which deposited a drop of ink on the dial when a measurement was taken, was the first to be given the name “chronograph”. It was also the first chronograph to be patented, in 1822.

The chronograph became popular in various professions, which all had their own specific measurement scales. Telemeters, tachymeters and productometers for engineers, and pulsometers for physicians. The telemeter also featured on military chronographs, where it was used to calculate the origin of enemy fire.

the chronograph

Star Legacy Nicolas Rieussec Chronograph Only Watch 21 Unique Piece and a replica of the original chronograph machine © Montblanc

The ability to measure short time intervals would prove useful to scientists (including astronomers) who needed precise and reliable measuring instruments for their research. Finally, the world of sport came along with a more universal application for the chronograph.

Chronographs these days come in a number of different guises – one pusher or two, with or without flyback – and are produced by the great majority of watch brands. Although the chronograph complication has improved in precision and reliability over the decades, is has lost its status as a scientific instrument. It is now known as an iconic complication that few people use, but many people appreciate for its good looks, both on the dial as well as on the movement side. 

The Chronograph

1815 Rattrapante Chronograph movement © A. Lange & Söhne

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