The first chronograph in history, the “Thirds counter”, was created by Louis Moinet in 1816 and was the first pocket watch with a central hand capable to rotate in one minute and to be activated, stopped and resetted with a pusher.
However, the term “chronographe” was introduced a few years later by Nicolas-Mathieu Rieussec that patented a system where a little ink tank was fitted into the measuring hand, recording the time interval on a white dial, allowing it to be measured.
The real revolution came in the 30s, when the first wrist chronographs were patented, adding a module to the mechanism capable to operate independently the start, stop and reset functions.
Over the years, the countless uses of the chronograph let this famous and beloved complication to spread over people that really uses it for technical measurements as well as who just aesthetically enjoys it.
Many types of chronographs were developed, but we think it’s better to first see the fundamentals of chronographs to understand more complicated ones.
The mainly involved components are the watch seconds wheel and the chronograph seconds wheel.
While the first is always spinning, the chronograph seconds needs to be activated and stopped when required.
A crucial part in the operation of a chronograph is the way the connection between running seconds and chronograph’s, called clutch, is manufactured.
The clutch can be lateral or vertical.
The lateral clutch works thanks to a pusher-operated lever. To the pressure, the lever moves a mechanism that connects a wheel from the running seconds to the chronograph’s, activating them.
This is the less precise clutch, because when the lever gets pushed, a little “jump” can occur due to wheel alignment.
The vertical clutch, instead, works like an actual clutch.
Second wheels are overlapped and, when the pusher is pressed, the graft is set by contact instead of interlocking.
This allows for a smoother operation and less wear of the components, compared to lateral clutch.
Another crucial part is the shunt system
In other words, the procedure as all the different function levers are managed.
Here again, we can find two systems.
It’s considered to be the best shunt system, except being very technically advanced, rises the prestige and the collectors’ praise because of its manufacturing complexity.
Works via a Column Wheel, a cylindrical component with six trapezoidal “columns” on the top, used to manage the chronograph’s different levers related to the functions.
This system makes the engagement of the chronograph really smooth and needs for less pressure compared to cams.
A cam shunt works thanks to cam-operated levers.
The number of components involved is similar to a column-wheel mechanism but requires less building precision and lower manufacturing and servicing costs.
The best mechanism surely is the column wheel with vertical clutch, while the most budget-friendly is the cam shunt with lateral clutch, lacking in precision because of the “jump” caused by the joining of running seconds and chronograph’s gears.
Chronographs are important calculation tools that need to provide the highest precision possible
This is why, over the years, many different versions were born, to adapt over a wide range of uses. Let’s see some of them.
Thanks to Longines, back in 1936, the ancestor of modern flybacks was patented.
This “complication’s complication” allows to measure sequences of time very quickly, without manually resetting the chronograph.
Usually, when the chronograph is running and the reset pusher is pressed, the measuring instantly starts back from zero.
As seen in a previous article, the first rattrapante mechanism was created by Louis-Fredric Perrelet in 1827.
This particular chronograph comes in handy when two events with the same beginning but not the same end needs to be recorded.
Two chronograph second hands are overlapped.
When simultaneously started, a pusher allows to stop one hand while letting the other keeping its measurement.
Reactivating it, the first hand will match the unstopped one.
The need to manage two second hands makes it an important and complex complication to deploy because of many precision errors that can occur, for example the faulty alignment of second hands.
Inside the rattrappante family, we can find the monorattrappante.
It features a single hand capable to stop and retrieve the lost seconds when reactivated.
The monopusher chronograph features a single pusher that, in sequence, allows to operate all the functions of start, stop and reset that are usually managed through two different pushers.
A distinctive feature is in the position of the pusher, that can be found at 2, 4 or, in some cases, in the crown at 3 o’clock.
Not less important, these chronographs are used by skippers to calculate, in the minutes before the start, the right side to start on the base of the start line and wind direction.
They feature a particular countdown pre-setted system that is activated by the chronograph and displays the remaining time from SET to START, usually with analog numbers or bright-colored slots to ease the read. They allow to calculate optimal starting strategies interacting with the graduated bezel.
Introduced by Singer Reimagined in 2017, it’s focused on the high legibility of the chronographic feature.
It was born from a massive work by the team, to create a movement that allows to tell the time peripherally (on the sides of the dial) with two rotating discs, and the chronograph’s records on the center.
“Absolute Clutch” Monopusher by De Bethune
As you can read on our article on the new collection, De Bethune’s DB28 Maxichrono holds a record: a monopusher chronograph with 5 central hands.
This allows to have all the chronographic measures in the center, very quick to read. All is possible thanks to the Absolute Clutch, a combination of the previously seen clutches.
Zenith Defy’s Double Tourbillon Chronograph
This new chronograph introduced by Zenith in the last Basel Fair, features the hyper sophisticated automatic chronograph movement El Primero 9020 that, thanks to its two tourbillons, is capable to measure precisely up to a tenth of a second.
This is possible thanks to two separated tourbillon escapements:
The watch’s works at a frequency of 36.000 vph and the tourbillon completes one turn in 60 seconds, while the chronograph’s, world’s quickest, works at a whopping 360.000vph frequency, completing a turn every 5 seconds and letting the chronograph seconds hand to complete a turn per second.
This watch, born in 2001 and protected by a patent that only allows Eberhard to produce this complication, overlap the chronograph’s counters and the running seconds subdial.
Trivial at first sight, to manufacture this movement many years and the stubbornness of Palmiro Monti, brand’s CEO at the time, were needed.
Based on a heavily modified ETA 2894-2 automatic chronograph modular movement, eight gear trains were added to power the four subdials that (from left to right) display minutes, hours, chronograph’s 24 hours and running seconds.
Even though technology made this function almost obsolete to the wearer, the chronograph embodies one of the foundations of horology and one of its spread keys over the last century. Just think about the link between the chronograph and motorsports to understand how a whole item can be revolutionized by “just a hand”.
Translated by Lorenzo Spolaor (@itsdoc_oclock)