When we think about chronographs today we think about the Omega Speedmaster, the Rolex Daytona, and the Zenith El Primero. While each one of these is an exceptional watch, one may wonder when was the first chronograph wristwatch invented, by who, and for what purpose? But before we get into this, we will first take a look at the evolution of chronographs and how brands came to create a version of it that could be worn on a wrist. I know, nowadays we don’t even have to think about this since we are all too familiar with chronographs that come in all sizes, technologies, and price points. However, when we really think of it, how we watchmakers went from creating a mechanical movement that could time an event to a watch that could be worn on the surface of the moon is quite astonishing.
The First Mechanical Chronograph
There are two dates in the 19th century that we should all know about. The first one is 1816 when Louis Moinet created the first—as in very first—mechanical chronograph for astronomers. (And it was in the form of a pocket watch!) It was an incredible feat of mechanical engineering and like many horological inventions, it was created for a very specific purpose: measuring the movements of heavenly bodies to aid with nautical navigation. This incredible mechanical movement beat at a mesmerizing 216,000 BPH (30Hz) while most mechanical movements today run at 28,800 BPH (4Hz.) Moinet needed such a high frequency for more precise calculations. (The rest is beyond my comprehension but I think you get where I was trying to get at.)
The second date is 1821 when French watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec created the first commercially available mechanical chronograph. This was done at the request of the French King Louis XVIII who needed such an instrument to time his beloved horse races. Unlike Moinet’s invention, Rieussec’s chronograph came in the form of a box with two counters and a needle that would mark elapsed time by applying ink on one of the counters. His invention was then updated in 1844 by Swiss watchmaker Adolphe Nicole who was the first to add a re-setting feature.
The First Chronograph Wrist Watch
After the invention of the first chronographs, which contributed to the development of professional sports such as horse racing, running, and car racing—due to the fact that now precise timing could be done and athletes competed harder to beat each other’s records—came the time for the first wrist chronograph. As far as history knows, Longines was the first brand to create it and did so in 1913. Longines’s Monopusher chronograph was accurate to 1/5th of a second. Two years later, in 1915, Breitling released its own chronograph that included the first dedicated pusher to start, stop, and reset the chronograph.
(The Longines chronograph from 1913 only had one crown to operate the chronograph and set the time.)
Longines continued working on its chronograph movements when it created the first movement with a fly-back function in 1936. This meant that the user could reset the chronograph hand to time a new event without having to stop and reset. This had become an extremely useful complication to time races of all sorts. The evolutions after that were numerous and there are too many to list them all here. However, I should finish by mentioning the first automatic chronograph which, according to who you ask, could be attributed to either a secret project between Heuer, Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Depraz to create caliber 11, or to the Zenith El Primero or to Seiko.
Random Tidbits About Chronographs
I’m really not trying to make a complex topic simple, however I need to remain concise. One element that always left me perplexed is the addition of certain scales on the bezel inserts or rehaut of chronographs to give the watch a different function. For example, the tachymeter scale that we see on the Speedmaster was made to measure speed (of a car or airplane, for example.) The telemeter scale was invented to measure distance from an object, something that was created for artillery battalions to measure distance from a target. Now brands add scales to measure, for example, the brewing time for the perfect espresso shot.
When researching the topic of mechanical chronographs, I realized that a lot of milestones had been reached, many inventions patented, and interesting secret projects realized in order to make mechanical chronograph movements a reality. What we now perhaps take for granted in a quartz chronograph movement took decades to be developed, something that I find to be absolutely fascinating. I have a similar fascination for the development of the first dive watches and exploration watches. I hope that this very condensed explanation was useful to you! It certainly was for me as I realized that the invention of chronograph movements dates far back that I had originally imagined.