The Story of Slicing and Dicing Time

The countdown is over: Nicholas Foulkes traces the stop-start history of the indomitable chronograph, from its humble beginnings at the court of Louis XVIII, through two world wars, the Roaring Twenties and Swinging Sixties, to its rise from the ashes of the quartz crisis of the 1980s

The modern chronograph was born in 1861 in the expert hands of Henri Ferréol Piguet, a watch-maker from the Vallée de Joux, who was working at the time for the house of Nicole & Capt., based in London. It was patented the following year (by Adolphe Nicole).

Such is the confident assertion in the introduction of Messrs Joël Pynson and Sébastien Chaulmontet’s fascinating 2016 book, Chronographs for Collectors. But, in watchmaking, detail matters, and with a single word this apparent statement of fact turns into one of opinion. The word? “Modern”. Just how modern can a 155-year-old watch really be? Besides, if there had been a race to make the first chronograph—this is, after all, the Speed Issue—Piguet and Nicole would have crossed the finishing line four decades after the man who first made a timepiece called a chronograph. Although to describe as “modern” the contraption that Nicolas Rieussec, watchmaker by appointment to his recently restored Majesty King Louis XVIII, brought to the racecourse in the Champ de Mars in Paris stretches the truth beyond its normal elasticity. It was a box with a rotating dial onto which, at the push of a button, a drop of ink was squirted to give the time of the winning horse. The name was obvious (if you were classically educated and understood Greek, that is): derived from chronos (time) and graphein (to write), the new linguistic compound literally translated as “timewriter”.

It was the must-have gadget, and the concept was even transferred to the pocket watch—I just hope they used washable ink.

Of course, it is possible to go further back still. For instance, just four years ago, someone at Louis Moinet—an old name plucked from the deep freeze of history, thawed out, and relaunched in the boom years of the last decade—stumbled across an old piece which bolstered its claim that Moinet had invented the chronograph in around 1816. Making its debut under the catchy name “compteur de tierces”, it could record times to the nearest 1/60th of a second, an astonishing feat.

Moinet was an astronomer and he felt that this gizmo would help him in his stargazing. It was certainly ahead of its time, not least in that it featured two buttons, for starting, stopping, and re-setting, and even had a return-to-zero mechanism (a feature thitherto attributed to Adolphe Nicole). Personally, however, I tend to envisage a chronograph as something that tells the current time of day as well as counting elapsed time, and viewed from this perspective, the Moinet and the Rieussec seem more like stopwatches, which concern them-selves with timing an event, without telling the time.

It is possible to go on or, to be more accurate, back; the second half of the 18th century was littered with attempts to slice and dice time into tiny chunks. In 1776, Jean Moïse Pouzait came up with something that behaved a bit like the chronograph we know today, in that it featured an independent second hand that could be stopped and started while the hour and minute hands continued their circular progress. This combination of keeping the time of day while also measuring time elapsed strikes me as having echoes of the modern chronograph; then again, I suppose that one could argue that the true father of the chrono was Jean Romilly, who in 1754 made a watch with dead seconds: in other words, a hand that jumped once a second, which could be stopped (although it meant stopping the entire movement). Looking much further back for ancestors of the chronograph is tricky; as watches with minute—let alone second—hands were uncommon until the early years of the 18th century.

Who knows, maybe someone will try to launch a brand called Romilly and present the 18th-century horological eponym as the inventor of the chrono-graph? But, for the moment, my friends at Wikipedia have placed these laurels on the brow of Moinet.

Romilly’s invention made its debut just around the time of the foundation of the Jockey Club in London, and I like to think it was the growing popularity of racing that propelled the vogue for the proto-chrono. Certainly, this was the conclusion reached by Antoine Norbert de Patek on his first—and only—visit to the New World. “Americans vociferously, loudly demand watches which are not expensive, but they also demand that they are capable of calculating the speed of their trotting horses with split-second accuracy,” he wrote to his colleagues in Geneva.

This disaster-laden trip to the United States in 1854 and 1855 has become a famous part of Patek lore, as the watchmaker wrote home of transatlantic storms, seedy hotels, rapacious pricing, rheumatism, robberies, riverboats run aground, explosions, house fires, and locomotives derailed or caught in snowdrifts. The jeremiad of his trip is so full of accidents and misfortunes that one is apt to miss the most startling fact of life as experienced by Patek in America—it was fast-paced.

Until the introduction of steamship services in the 1830s, the Atlantic crossing took anything upwards of five or six weeks—much the sort of time that the Mayflower took and indeed a time-frame that would have been familiar to Columbus. By the 1850s, when Patek made the trip, a crossing in a fast vessel in the right conditions could take a mere eight or nine days.

Things were picking up speed on land as well. Stephenson had only designed his Rocket a quarter of a century earlier, but the railway was revolutionizing the world (the needs of railway timetables would eventually lead to the creation of the world’s time zones). It was a momentous step. For millennia, the fastest a man could reasonably expect to travel was sitting on the back of a horse that might cover, say, 30 miles a day.

By the time that Patek arrived in America, the latest in high-speed ground transportation was the Cramp-ton locomotive, a low, (relatively) sleek beast of a thing that could propel its passengers along the railways at speeds of up to a quite astonishing and terrifying 75mph.

Patek also caught a glimpse of the future of high-speed precision manufacturing at the Waltham watch company in all its steam-powered modernity. The world was moving faster and watchmaking had to keep up—to do so, it needed more than a box squirting a drop of ink onto a rotating enamel disk. 

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Accordingly, the mid 19th century saw a flurry of activity around chronographs. During the 1830s, a watchmaker called Winnerl had perfected the split-second chronograph mechanism. In the 1840s, Adolphe Nicole was granted a patent for a heart-shaped cam that reset the chronograph hand (a feature of the chrono to this day). The 1860s saw Ferréol make his famous “modern” zero-reset chrono. And the same decade Auguste Baud rearranged the movement architecture, moving the chronograph mechanism from under the dial to the back of the movement, where it has stayed ever since.

The chronograph had become more than a racecourse accessory. It was the watch of the modern age; a symbol of the relentless progress promised by the advances of the 19th century. There were chronographs with dials calibrated to assist with the development and printing of photographs. Doctors could use chronographs equipped with pulso-metric and sphygmomanometric scales to tell a patient’s heart rate or speed of breathing. Artillerymen found the chronograph invaluable for judging range for cannon fire: measuring the time between seeing the muzzle flash and hearing the report; then calculating the distance. Engineers and, later, thrill-seeking drivers of horseless carriages could read off the speed of moving objects using tachymetric scales. As the nature and speed of manufacturing changed, chronographs equipped with production counting scales enabled industrialists to calculate exactly how many items could be made per hour. And as those industrialists became rich they rewarded themselves with chronographs that were combined with other complications; by 1889, Patek Philippe had a patent for perpetual calendar chronographs.

The later decades of the 19th century saw Swiss watchmaking in the grip of a chronograph boom, during which some of the most famous names associated with the speed-counting complication got their start. Edouard Heuer was the son of a shoemaker, but footwear’s loss was very much horology’s gain when he set up his business in Saint-Imier; the increasing popularity of sport convinced him to become involved in the nascent field of chronograph and stopwatch manufacturing and his research into simplifying the mechanism responsible for the transmission between chronograph and watch movement led to the oscillating pinion—itself a jolly fast-moving piece of kit, as the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie explains. It “comprises a mobile stem and two pinions, [and] allows the chronograph to function very efficiently by replacing the two large wheels of the anterior movements. A coupling system enables the chronograph to locate onto the watch movement with ultimate precision. The chronograph’s lightning-fast start—an incredible 2/1000ths of a second—guarantees the utmost in timekeeping accuracy.”

The 1880s saw Heuer applying for chronograph patents in Germany, France, the USA … in fact, pretty much anywhere else with a patent office. And he was far from the only Swiss watchmaker to be doing so. By the end of the decade, young Leon Breitling was adding to the growing mountain of chronograph patents with one for a “simplified chronograph-timer with a single wheel and normal teeth”.

Like Heuer, Breitling had started his business in Saint-Imier, but at the beginning of the 1890s he moved to La Chaux-de-Fonds and opened a factory dedicated to cashing in on the chrono-graph boom. “Horlogerie Com-pliquée—Spécialité de Chrono-graphes” was the slogan and, if there was an event to time, he wanted there to be a task-appropriate Breitling. One of the brand’s most esoteric products was a device called the “Unedeu”, which was initially manufactured for the clergy, enabling them to keep track of the number of parishioners attending prayers and Church services … presumably the congregation were using their chronographs to check that the padre’s sermons did not overrun.

The pocket chronograph was evolving at … well … speed. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw ever more specialized interpretations of the chronograph. In their 1993 book, Chronograph Wristwatches: To Stop Time, Gerd-R. Lang and the legendary Reinhard Meis catalogue examples that seem today to be utterly bizarre.Take the 1892 patent of Theodore Schaedeli for a telemetric chronograph “with which a very precise measurement of distance in units of 51 meters was possible”; it involved a 30-second chronograph sweep hand moving around a dial so finely printed as to be barely readable. Legibility aside, there was another drawback: it was only accurate when the temperature was 16 degrees Celsius (although helpfully he provided a list of adjusted values, with the number of metres to add or subtract given the varying rate at which sound travelled through air of different temperatures). Thus, in order to make the most of Schaedeli’s “51-metre” chronograph it was necessary to have a magnifying glass, a thermometer and perhaps some form of calculator to hand.

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The pimping of pocket chronographs became ever more extreme: by 1907, F. Amez-Droz of Geneva had patented what became known as the “snail tachometer scale” with the suggestion “that it be used in a pocket watch with a dial on each side. With one revolution of the second hand in two minutes, it registered in 5.5 revolutions (in a counter-clockwise direction, because the tachometer scale was on the back of the pocket watch) a speed range of 5-60kph.” The dial looks as complicated as the description sounds: imagine a piece of Op art crossed with a book of logarithmic tables.

But as Amez-Droz was decorating watch dials with numerically enhanced Vasarely-like spirals, something rather more momentous was happening to the watch: it was moving from the pocket to the wrist. Although there were wrist-worn watches before, Cartier’s 1904 watch for Alberto Santos-Dumont is usually taken as ground zero when it comes to wristwatches. As the watch of the modern man, the chronograph needed to be—forgive the pun—up to speed with this new horological development, and the Swiss watch industry, not always famed for its willingness to change, reacted uncharacteristically swiftly.

The earliest mention that I have been able to find of a chronograph wristwatch is from 1909, by a La Chaux-de-Fonds maker called Ducommun-Müller. Chronograph makers lost no time in sticking lugs onto pocket watches and putting straps on them. Often the solution was to take a pocket chronograph with the bow (the hoop to which a chain was attached) around its winding crown and integral chronograph button at 12 o’clock and attach a sham crown with another bow at six o’clock, then thread a strap through them both, et voilà: your chronograph pocket watch was now a wristwatch chronograph. Miniaturized chronograph movements of 13 lignes started to be seen from around 1910, as some of the most important names in modern watchmaking started bringing out chronograph wristwatches: Longines around 1910, Omega 1913, Heuer 1914, and Breitling in 1915.

However, had the industry been hoping for a rapturous reception for the new-fangled timepiece in the US market that had once been so keen to buy pocket chronographs, they were disappointed. All-American machismo revolted against this unfamiliar type of watch, finding it disconcertingly feminine. Newspapers ran articles ridiculing the new trend. As Charles-Edouard Heuer observed: “It took the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 to change the Yankees’ minds and convince them of the advantage of watches worn on the wrist.”

War boosted demand for sophisticated timers: killing in the 20th century was be-coming an increasingly fast-moving and precise business, requiring time to be split into ever smaller amounts, and in 1916 Heuer invented the Mikrograph, a stopwatch accurate to 1/100th of a second. It was joined by the Semi-mikrograph, the Mikrosplit and the Semimikrosplit, keeping the patent office almost as busy as Heuer’s watchmakers, who were working hard to fulfil large orders for these precision instruments from both Germany and England.

As the tides of war receded, the world was left speed-obsessed: the title of the 1924 film, The Fast Set, said it all about the Roaring Twenties. Everything was faster than it had been before: the cars, the planes, the women, the dance steps and, of course, the music. In 1923, Irving Berlin spoke of jazz to the New York Times, telling the paper that “its swiftness is interpretative of our verve and speed and ceaseless activity. When commuters no longer rush for trains, when taxicabs pause at corners, when businessmen take afternoon siestas, then, perhaps, jazz may pass.”

Much the same could have been said about chronographs. Many makers now started to produce dashboard chrono-graphs for cars and planes as car ownership and air travel became more widespread. Chronographs even reflected the greater speed of communication. Things had moved on from the days of homing pigeons (for which, of course, there had been specially developed chronographs). In 1927, it became possible to make transatlantic calls from London to New York. The cost was an astronomical £15 for three minutes (placing a transatlantic call was an exclusive business: in the first year, just 2,000 calls were made).

Prices fell over time, but for many years, international calls were priced in three-minute units. Nattering for a couple of seconds too long could cost a packet; in response, many chronograph makers adapted the minute-counting subdial, so that the third, sixth and ninth minute were marked with indices of an exaggerated length, to help keep conversations in three-minute chunks.

The chronograph demonstrated that its wearer was up to speed with modern life. It was aspirational, and even if you could not afford a car, a plane ticket or a transatlantic telephone call, canny watch brands made sure that you could at least look the part with a keenly priced chronograph. Typical was Breitling’s Montbrillant 12: a very simple chrono-graph aimed at younger customers, with no minute or hour counter but a very busy dial including subsidiary seconds, one of the famous spiral snail scales and a telemetric read-out.

“Popularizing the chronograph among young people will have felicitous effects,” said Willy Breitling at the launch of the watch in 1935. “A person who has been accustomed from his youth to reading off time to the second and to trusting his watch will not be able to give it up later.” In other words, another customer would be hooked, and then “he will afterwards want to acquire a higher-priced chronograph timer.” As well as democratizing the chronograph, Breitling was reshaping it: in 1933, it patented a system that separated the chronograph pushbutton from the winding crown with a start and stop button at 2pm and a reset button at 4pm. By the time the world descended into another world war, the chronograph took on the familiar shape that it has today.

War is hell … unless you happened to be a Swiss watchmaker in about 1940. New factories opened and existing plants expanded to cope with demand and, when it was all over, the victors celebrated with new chronographs. US President Truman was presented with a gold Universal Tri-Compax at the Potsdam Conference and General Dwight Eisenhower treated himself to a more modest stainless-steel Heuer.

Post-war chronographs were depicted alongside sports cars, jet planes and even space rockets, and tachometric scales were adapted to record ever faster speeds. Generally speaking, during the 1920s, the top speed shown had been 360kph; during the 1930s this nudged up to 400kph, hitting 500kph at the beginning of the 1940s. By the mid-1950s, chronographs were calibrated to record speeds of a blistering 1,000kph.

With quartz watches still in the distant future, the 1950s and early 1960s were halcyon years for chronographs. Patek Philippe began production of its legendary 2499 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph. In 1953, Breitling launched the Navitimer, with its famous circular slide rule (in case you felt like calculating your rate of fuel consumption or needed to convert nautical into statute miles). Omega introduced the Speedmaster: 60 years old this year, it began its life as the watch for the fast-car enthusiast or, as Omega put it, the “man who reckons time in seconds”—and went so fast that it would eventually wind up on the moon.

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The chronograph continued to flourish in the 1960s, as a young, dynamic Jack Heuer took over his family’s firm, creating three legendary chronographs—the Autavia, Carrera and Monaco—and actively sponsoring motorsport. Heuers were worn by racing drivers Derek Bell, Jochen Rindt, Mario Andretti, Clay Regazzoni, Graham Hill, Jo Siffert and Gilles Villeneuve, as well as many more who wished they were motor racers including, most famously, Steve McQueen. And of course, the high-speed collision of Hollywood glamour with high-octane horsepower created the famous Paul Newman Daytona, a funkily dialled version of the “Cosmograph” launched by Rolex in 1963.

But by the mid-1960s, chronograph sales began to slip. Mirabile dictu, although reliable self-winding wrist-watches had been around since Rolex launched its Oyster Perpetual in 1931, the mechanical chronograph still needed to be hand-wound and, just as the Americans were locked in a space race and an arms race with the USSR, so the world of the chronograph geared up for a race to make the first auto-matic movement: on one side, a consortium of Breitling, Heuer and movement-maker Dubois-Depraz, and on the other, Zenith.

Both movements, the Chronomatic and Zenith’s El Primero, made their debut in 1969. The Chronomatic was initially distinguished by having the winding crown at nine o’clock. By placing the crown on the left of the case, ran the argument, this new watch was showing that once wound, the motion of the wearer’s wrist rendered hand-winding almost redundant, hence the reason it was tucked away on the other side of the dial. In reality, it was the way the movement was constructed that dictated this odd location; an idiosyncracy that was ironed out in future iterations. The El Primero has, it is safe to say, aged rather better: this high-frequency movement remains in production.

Both claimed to be first, but within a couple of years such concerns had proved academic: battery-powered, quartz-regulated watches soon proved themselves superior when it came to accuracy and needed no winding at all. However, the race to make an automatic chronograph had inspired movement suppliers to create their own automatic chronographs, including the Valjoux 7750, which was announced in 1973 but had virtually ceased production a year later, already out of date before it launched, and considered superannuated when compared to ultra-accurate quartz timing, the preferred timekeeping method of the supersonic era.

To all appearances, the story of the mechanical chronograph had come to an end, especially when in 1971 Zenith was bought by the Zenith Radio Corporation, which decided to discontinue the El Primero and scrap the tooling to make it. Happily, Charly Vermot, a Zenith employee, thought otherwise and hid the equipment so that when, in the 1980s, Rolex took the decision to equip its Daytona with an automatic calibre (before developing its own movement), thanks to Vermot, Zenith could restart production and won the contract to supply the movements.

Something similar happened with the Valjoux 7750. Production ceased in 1975 and there was so little demand that it took a decade for stocks to run down. However, ETA still knew how to produce it so that when, during the 1980s, a few daring entrepreneurs and diehard enthusiasts for mechanical watches decided to return to producing mechanical chronographs, production resumed. The movement that had once been seen as arriving too late to save a dying industry actually revealed itself as a slumbering powerhouse that was merely waiting for watchmaking to revive itself.

Forty years on, not only is the 7750 still in production but it has also appeared in chronographs across dozens of brands and has been the base of watches as significant as the IWC Destriero Scafusia, one of the grandest of grand complications from the pioneering days of the early 1990s.

Indeed, the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking, and the current fascination with complications, owes much to the mechanical chronograph. 

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