Deconstructing the chronograph

They say every man needs a good timepiece, but the myriad choices on offer can sometimes be confounding.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero watch
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For a man wishing to adopt an air of sporty panache, a chronograph is a good option, as it is essentially a natty stopwatch, perfect for recording the speeds of manly daring-do.

Although clocks had existed since the early 14th century, the inability to accurately time an event led to the invention of a clockwork pen marking a dial, which took its name from the Greek words for time (chronos) and writing (graph).

Although the writing element was soon abandoned, the name remained and in 1816, Louis Moinet created what is regarded as the world’s first chronograph when he devised a machine for calculating the time taken for the stars to pass. In 1821, Nicolas Rieussec refined the idea, at the behest of the French King Louis XVIII, who commissioned him to invent a way to time royal horseraces.

Rieussec’s chronograph changed sporting events by allowing – for the first time - winners to compete for time as well as distance. At the turn of the 19th century, however, wristwatches were still fairly inaccurate, triggering a quest for precision.

In 1910, Rolex debuted with a chronograph, while in 1915 Gaston Breitling developed a chronograph with a push button to start/stop a thirty-minute counter, which was quickly adopted by pilots during the First World War.

The demands of war lead to a rush of innovation from the likes of Ulysse Nardin, Longines, Omega, Sarda and Eberhart, which all released their own pilot’s chronographs, which were quickly adopted by the navy. The post war years saw a rush to explore speed and space, leading Tag Heuer in 1958 to add a rotating bezel tachymeter (a method of measuring speed over distance) while in 1964, the Omega Speedmaster chronograph became the official watch of NASA and the space missions, which it remains to this day.

Chronographs are frequently found on the wrists of Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, basketball player Lebron James, boxer Floyd Mayweather, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Craig, and even ex-president Barak Obama.


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