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Last modified: 08 aug 1999


Chronograph watches

Around 1910, the chronograph, also referred to as stopwatch, was introduced as a wrist watch. Soon it was a very sought after type of watch, only to gain in popularity through the years. When the Swatch watch company started the production of affordable and fashionable chrono's in early 1990, they sold like hot cakes, as were the later versions. Nowadays, almost every respectable watch company has a chronograph in its collection.

The chronograph was invented by a Frenchman, named Rieussec, back in 1821. Literally, this was the only timepiece that bore the name Chronograph rightly. It actually wrote on the dial with a small pen attached to the index. The length of the arc of the circle displayed the time that had passed. The index was fixed while the dial turned. The Greek words chronos and graph stand for resp. time and writing. Chronoscope would be a more accurate name for chronographs, since there is no real "writing" involved anymore.

In 1822, Rieussec was granted a patent for his invention.

The Real Chronograph

Chronographs are watches that can measure time in different ways. Besides normal timekeeping they can be used for one or more specific time measurements. For this, the dial has several sub dials with a scale, from which the measurements can be read. A central second hand can be started and stopped, without interfering with the continuous time.

According to this definition, Chrono-stop watches like the one made by Technos are not real chronographs. The central second hand acts like a "normal" second hand until the button (located at "4") is pushed. The hand jumps to 12. If the button is released, the hand will resume his normal function. This makes the watch a stopwatch: with the button, located at "2", the seconds hand can be stopped for a short period. The watch will gain or loose some seconds with this resetting, so it will no longer give the correct time. These watches don't have subsidiary dials.

The design of the dial of chronographs depends on the number of subsidiary dials. This can be two, three or even four. One of them is likely to be situated on the "9" of the dial, and shows the continuous seconds. When the chronograph is activated by pushing the top button, the central seconds hands starts moving. After one complete cycle is completed and the hand has returned to "12", the minute-indicator, located at the "3", will jump one position. With this simple type of chronograph a period of 30 or 45 minutes can be measured.

More complicated chrono's have a subregister for total hours, often located at 6 o'clock on the dial. This enable to take measurements up to 12 hours. Even fairly simple chronographs have a very complicated movement, but there is always one step further. There are chronographs that have, beside minute and hour registers, displays for day and date, and moon phase indication.

The terms Chronograph and Chronometer are often used indiscriminately, although they are two different types of watches. The term chronometer is more of a title a watch can "earn" after a series of severe tests. An official Swiss institute is in charge of these tests, which are strictly prescribed in protocols. In 1961, one of the rules was, that a mechanical watch was not allowed to gain more than 12 seconds or to loose more than 3 seconds in order to receive the title. Because the quality and accuracy of wrist watches improved, these rules needed adjustment through the years.

A chronograph can also acquire the Chronometer title, if it meets the set standards. If so, the dial will most likely have the inscription "officially Certified Chronometer".

Technical Innovations

The development of the chronograph followed the technical innovation of the wrist watch very closely. When in the 1930's manufacturers started producing waterproof watches, this know how was used in the production of chronographs shortly after. In 1933, the firm Universal introduced the first waterproof chronograph to the public under the name "Colonial". And shortly after developers managed to protect the movement of a watch against magnetic influences, the first anti-magnetic chronograph followed.

It was strange enough, though, that it took many years before the technique of the self winding movement was used in the production of chronographs. The first self winding pocket watch was invented back in 1778 by a man named Abraham Louis Perrelet (1729-1826). It took almost 150 years before John Harwood was granted a patent for his self winding wrist watch in 1922.

It would take until 1969 before the first self winding chronograph appears on the market. In that year, two automatic chronographs were introduced on the Basel Watch Fair: the Chronomat and the El Primero. The firms Zenith and Movado called their product "El Primero" (The First), because it was the first in it's kind. Their competitors Breitling, Hamilton-Bren and Heuer-Leonidas -which, one by one, thought that the honours of being the first was theirs- gave their new-comer the name "Chrono-matic", a joining of "chronograph" and "automatic".

In the development of the calibers (base movements), both groups sailed their own course. The Chrono-matic caliber uses a balance wheel with 19,800 beats per hour and a micro rotor to supply the energy for the movement. A chronograph module is placed on the normal watch movement, and can be taken of entirely when servicing.

The El Primero has a "high beat movement", which means that the balance wheel makes 36,000 beats per hour. This means that the seconds are divided in tenths of a second and not in fifths (or five-and-a-halfths) like the Chrono-matic and practically all the other chronographs. This means that measurements with an accuracy of 1/10s of a second can be taken. The self winding is taken care of by a semi-circular rotor which is fixed on the back side of the movement, and rotates over the full diameter of the movement.

The Sporting Image

At the beginning of this century, stopwatches were used mainly by sportsmen and the military. Professionally, they had to be able to measure the time of certain events accurately. For them, a chronograph was a practical choice.

Stopwatches are still indissolubly attached to sport. Nowadays, the difference between Gold and Silver is very often a matter of hundredths of a second. Mechanical watches can't measure this, so quartz chronographs are used.

Today, wearing a chronograph is a matter of taste, rather than professional. The chronograph is becoming a fashion statement. Practical applications are still plentiful, of coarse, like the boiling of "the perfect egg", which requires very accurate timing. the biggest appeal of the chrono is probably the exciting and sportive image, for it is the watch for astronauts, racing car drivers and pilots. Professions that are known to be adventurous.

Beside those who choose functionality or image, there is a small group of enthusiasts (collectors) that considers the movement to be the most beautiful part of the watch. If you have ever seen a chronograph opened up, you might know what this is about. It is an arranged chaos, in which tiny springs, pawls and gears set the chrono movement in motion. Every minute part has its own role in the functioning of the whole watch.

Flight Control

So it were the military and sportsmen that used the first chronographs. The soldiers used it to time their excersises and operations. And because many of these operations were carried out at night, there was the need of an illuminated dial. Numerals and hands were treated with a fluorescent material, Radium. Military chronographs are recognized by the easy to read, black dial and an inscription on the back indicating the army unit.

Military watches are quite similar, because of the regulations and specifications they have to meet. A military chrono may be fitted with a telemeter scale on the edge of the dial. This can be used to determine the distance of enemy artillery or thunderstorm. When the chrono is started at the perception of the fire and stopped at the explosion, the central hand will indicate the distance.

Chrono's used by sportsmen are most likely used as stopwatches. The dial indicates the number of seconds, divided in fifths of a second.

For different professionals like doctors, engineers, astronauts, divers, marines and laboratory personnel, special timepieces are made. For medical personnel, the pulsometer is developed, with a scale to facilitate the taking of the pulse. The chrono is started at the first pulse and stopped after 10 to 15 pulses, depending the calibration. The central hand will then indicate the pulse rate in beats per minute. Respiration frequencies can be taken in a similar fashion.

Engineers, pilots and naval officers are benefited by a chronograph with a slide rule bezel. Especially useful at sea, where navigation used to require lots of measuring and calculation. The best example of a chrono of this type is the Navitimer by Breitling, a genuine classic.

To coureurs, a stopwatch with tachometer is very useful. For example, to measure the speed of a formula 1 race car, the time to cover a distance of 1000 meters is measured, and the tachometer scale automatically indicates the speed in kilometers per hour. A chrono that made particular good appearance in the racing world is the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. It has a tachometer and a telemeter scale, as well as minute and hour registration.

The Speedmaster by Omega has the honorable nickname "astronauts watch". Since 1965 it is the official chronograph of astronauts of NASA. On July 21st 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon, wearing a Speedmaster. Since then, this model has the inscriptions "first watch worn on the moon" and "flight-qualified by NASA for all manned space missions" on the back side. In 1970 the watch proved invaluable when after a series of explosions on board of the Apollo XIII a number of important instruments out of order. There was no contact possible with Flight Control, and the astronauts had to calculate and time the return into the atmosphere. An error of a few seconds could have been fatal. Omega received the "Snoopy Award" for the performance of the Speedmaster. Contrary to what the name suggests, this is the highest award issued by NASA.

Divers chrono

Divers have their own time piece as well. Basic requirement is that the case is waterproof. That is why a divers chronograph has round pushers, a screw on crown, and a screw back case which is provided with rubber gasket-rings to keep water out. At a depth of 30 meters there is hardly any daylight penetrating, so luminescent numerals and hands on a dark dial are necessary.

The most important feature of any divers watch and an essential part of every divers equipment is the diving ring. This is a rotating bezel around the dial or the crystal. It is divided in minutes and often has a triangular fluorescent marking at 12. Before divers take to the water, they have calculated the time they can spend under water. The diving time depends on the depth and the amount of oxygen taken down. When a diver has 45 minutes of air and enters the water at 14:00 hours, the triangular marking has to be set 45 minutes later, in this case at 9. The minutes hand has a similar triangle as the diving ring. When both markings meet, it is time to surface, because the air is running out.

The diving ring of a good divers watch can only turn counter clock wise. This is a safety precaution if the diving ring is turned by accident by bumping into a rock or something, it can only result in a shorter diving time.

Some divers chronographs are fitted with an extra dial indicating the tides. A chronograph for divers is not the best application for this type of watch. Although the stopwatch can be used as an extra safety precaution, the push buttons are two extra openings in the case through which water can penetrate the inside.


As a rule, a chronograph is quite valuable. It is more expensive than a normal or automatic watch, due to the complexity and craftsmanship necessary for manufacturing. That is why maintenance and repair are quite costly. Prices of "second hand" chronographs start at about $100 and go up according to availability and complexity. Of course, brand name has a great influence on the value.

Drs. Pjr Strolenberg

Copyright 1996 Robert Keulen