What Is A Chronograph And How Does It Work?

Most people know that a chronograph is a watch. But do you know how it works, what ‘chronograph’ actually means and who invented the first chronograph? We give you all the information needed to understand what a chronograph is and why it’s one of the most beloved timepieces of all time.

And don’t forget to check out our list of the 10 most frequently asked questions about chronographs and get the amazing story about how a chronograph saved the Apollo 13 mission!

Table of content on “What Is A Chronograph”:

  1. What is a chronograph watch?
  2. How does it work?
  3. Who invented the chronograph?
  4. The first chronograph
  5. The chronograph that saved Apollo 13

What Is A Chronograph And How Does It Work?

Chronograph explained

A chronograph is a display watch with a built-in stop-watch. The timekeeping functionality is simple to use: to operate a classic 3-push chronograph, simply start the stopwatch functionality by pressing the 2 o’clock pusher. You stop the time by pressing the same button and can also continue the recording by starting it again. To reset, you push the separate 4 o’clock pusher. In addition to the main display watch, a chronograph typically has three dials: second dial or sub-dial to register the time elapsed and a minute dial and hour dial for longer time recordings.

The ultimate timekeeper

The reason for chronographs being one of the most popular watch types has to be found in the functionality. With the stopwatch functionality at hand, your display watch becomes a handy tool for many situations. In fact, some use the term “tool watches” for the category of timepieces that have practical functions for tracking or calculating time. Most chronographs also include a tachymeter which is used for tracking the numbers visible on the dial or bezel. This makes it possible to compute a speed based on travel time or measure distance based on speed.

A favorite for the professionals and among the stars

In addition to the functionality, a traditional chronograph still has the classic look of an analog watch making it easy to read. This is why the chronograph has been and still is the preferred choice for pilots, astronauts and even movie stars. James Bond (Sean Connery) wore a Breitling Top Time chronograph with a Geiger counter in Thunderball (1965) and Steve McQueen wore a Heuer Monaco chronograph in the 1971 movie Le Mans.

See how one of the world’s most complicated watches is made

Becoming a chronograph specialist

The world of timepieces is filled with technical terms and complicated names. As a beginner, you’ll probably often find yourself lost in watch conversations and it can be tricky to know where to start. Our advice is to start with the basics and focus on what you like and are interested in. And be patient: what may seem like a basic ‘instrument’ to some people is what others spend a lifetime to study, collect or admire. In the below FAQ, we answer the 10 most frequently asked questions about chronographs.

Chronograph Watch Explained
The Nezumi CORBEAU REF. CQ2.533 is a classic aviation style chronograph watch. Image courtesy: Nezumi Studios

The 10 most frequently asked questions about chronographs

What is a chronograph?

A chronograph is a type of watch fitted with an additional timekeeping function that can be used by operating the pushers (start/stop/reset). In other words a combination of a stopwatch and a display watch.

What does chronograph mean?

The term chronograph comes from the Greek χρονογράφος (khronográphos ‘time recording’), from χρόνος (khrónos ‘time’) and γράφω (gráphō ‘to write’). Only early versions of the chronograph used actual writing as a small pen attached to the index was used to indicate how much time had elapsed.

How does a chronograph watch work?

Illustration showing how to start, stop and reset a chronograph.
Illustration showing how to start, stop and reset a chronograph. Copyright: Old News Club

The stopwatch functionality of a 3-pusher chronograph is built into the movement of the watch. Most chronographs are made with a Quartz movement. The basic functions are: starting the stop-watch functionality, stopping it and resetting it. You normally have two buttons to do this: one for the start/stop and pause, and one for the reset.

How do you read a chronograph?

Chronograph illustration
Copyright: Old News Club

In addition to the main display watch, a chronograph typically has three dials: second dial or sub-dial to register the time elapsed and a minute dial and hour dial. More complex timepieces can have even more dials.

Who invented the chronograph?

Louis Moinet Chronograph watch inventor
Louis Moinet, inventor of the chronograph.

The world’s first chronograph was invented in 1816 by Louis Moinet for tracking astronomical objects. In 1821, Nicolas Mathiew Rieussec developed the first marketed chronograph on request by King Louis XVIII by wanted to measure the duration of horse races.

What are the basic functions of a chronograph?

Basic functions in addition to telling the time on the display watch include the start/stop and reset of the stopwatch. Most chronographs also include a tachymeter which is used for tracking the numbers visible on the dial or bezel. This makes it possible to compute a speed based on travel time or measure distance based on speed.

What is the difference between a chronograph and an analog watch?

An analog watch is a traditional watch where you can tell the time via the two moving hands showing the current minute and hour. A chronograph has additional functionality via the stopwatch.

What was the first chronograph?

Breitling wrist chronograph with the first independent pushpiece at 2 o’clock, circa 1915.
Breitling wrist chronograph watch with the first independent pushpiece at 2 o’clock, circa 1915. Image courtesy of Breitling

Gaston Breitling produced the first wrist chronograph with a central seconds hand, a 30-minute counter and a separate push-piece above the watch crown in 1915. In 1925, the separate pusher at 2 o’clock was introduced and in 1934, Willy Breitling further developed the concept into the “3-pusher chronograph” we know today. The Breitling Navitimer from 1952 (created from the two words navigation and timer) is said to be the world’s oldest mechanical chronograph – still produced today in a modern version.

Which is the most famous chronograph?

Omega Speedmaster Chronograph
This is a newer edition of the Omega Speedmaster PROFESSIONAL. Not the actual Speedmaster used for the Apollo 13 mission. Image courtesy: Omega

The most famous chronograph has to be the OMEGA Speedmaster Professional that astronauts on Apollo 13 used for measuring the 14 seconds that got them safely back to Earth. Another iconic chronograph is the Breitling Navitimer – the first model “806” became the official watch for Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and during the 50s and 60s the watch was further developed into the Cosmonaut edition with a 24-hour dial to distinguish between day and night in space.

What is the difference between a chronograph and a chronometer?

A chronograph is used for recording time with great accuracy (thanks to the stopwatch functionality) while a chronometer is an instrument for accurately measuring time. If a watch is referred to as a chronometer, it has passed a series of precision tests over a 15-day period and earned an official rate certificate from the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute. A chronometer with the certificate must remain within +6/-6 seconds per day. A chronograph can also be a chronometer.

The chronograph that saved Apollo 13

Chronograph watch used on Apollo 13 by Fred
Fred Haise wearing his Omega Speedmaster chronograph on his right arm during a training exercise. Image courtesy: Nasa

In 1970, Apollo 13 was going on a mission to the Moon. Their ambition was to become the third crewed mission to land on the Moon but plans changed after what was described as a “pretty large bang”.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem”

One of the oxygen tanks exploded due to an electrical fault and after a short loss of the communication lines, Astronaut Swigert reported the famous: “Houston, we’ve had a problem”. In order to save the astronauts, Apollo 13 was redirected to loop around the Moon to return back to Earth. However, the spacecraft drifted off course while they were trying to conserve as much energy as possible. In order to get back on track and avoid the risk of bouncing off the atmosphere and into space, they figured out that they could turn on the engines for 14 seconds to get on the right path.

From the movie Apollo 13, 1995
From the movie Apollo 13, 1995. Image courtesy: Watchesinmovies.info

The only problem was, how do you tell the time and measure exactly 14 seconds when everything is turned off on a spaceship? Luckily, all three astronauts were equipped with OMEGA Speedmaster professional chronographs which had been a part of NASA’s official kit for manned missions since 1965. The Omega chronograph was used for measuring the 14 seconds that got Apollo 13 safely back to Earth.

Shop Omega Speedmaster

- Advertisement -

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.