In 1821, the French royal watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec was at the stands of the Champ-de-Mars, waiting for the horse races to start. It was the Arrondissement de la Seine race, the most awaited event of the day. But Rieussec had not simply come to watch. With him was his recent invention, a large device built in a mahogany box. Inside the box were two rotating dials, one to count the minutes and another to count the seconds, with two small buttons located at the side. Upon pressing the buttons, a small nib would drop ink on the dials, marking an exact time interval and effectively functioning as a stopwatch.
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It was the very first racing chronograph. Using the device, the judges could accurately determine how long it took each horse to run the race instead of simply determining the first to cross the finish line.
Even if Rieussec’s device introduced precision to sporting events, the earliest known chronograph was invented five years earlier. In 1816, Louis Moinet, a French artist and horologist, created a chronograph that closely resembled today’s models. To him, it was an instrument of astronomy, to be used to track the passing seconds for complex instruments.
But it was how Rieussec employed the instrument that would spark developments that continue to this day. From the archaic mahogany box, the chronograph has been refined through the years to be accurate down to a fraction of a second.
Longines is believed to have created the first wristwatch chronographs in 1913 with a model that featured a single button to control the function. One push would set the chronograph into motion, another would stop it, and a third push would reset the timer to the zero position. In 1923, Breitling would take the concept further and introduce a second button to control the starting process, obtaining a patent for this invention. The invention of the flyback feature, which allowed the user to instantly reset the timer to zero with one push, was a breakthrough in that it was able to time another event instantly. Pilots, in particular, appreciated the ease with which these could be used during flight. Likewise, the creation of the rattrapante chronograph (double chronograph), which uses two seconds hands, was especially useful for people who needed to time events in quick succession as one of the seconds hands could be stopped while the other one remained running.
In 1957, Omega released its Speedmaster line, which became the timekeeper of the Olympics. Later on, the watch would head to space and the moon during NASA’s missions. Not to be outdone, Seiko commemorated the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo by releasing limited edition chronographs. Pop culture has also elevated chronographs to cult status. The actor Steve McQueen was seen wearing the blue version of Heuer’s Monaco chronograph in the 1971 movie Le Mans. More recently, Bryan Cranston wore a Monaco in the hit TV series Breaking Bad. Rolex, on the other hand, is known for the Daytona, a watch that actor and race car driver Paul Newman was said to have worn every day until his death in 2008.
Photos courtesy of Pat Mateo (Longines), TAG Heuer (Monaco), and NASA (Schirra) via Wikimedia Commons.
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 15 No 3 2014