What is a chronograph? The history of the chronograph and an introduction to some representative chronograph watches!

History of the Chronograph

No other type of watch requires as much interaction from its owner as the chronograph.

There is an undeniable pleasure in interacting with a finely crafted mechanical chronograph movement.

When you press the button with just the right amount of pressure, you will hear a satisfying click and the second hand will begin to move.

Each time the hand completes a revolution, the 30-minute counter advances one notch.

Press the button again to stop the second hand, or press the reset button to quickly reset all the hands to their original position.

The first patented chronograph was used to compare the times of two racehorses.
Two inked needles draw lines on a paper dial.
It was a simple clock mechanism in a box.

The word "chronograph" literally means "something that keeps time."
Its usefulness was soon realized, and watchmakers began competing to make more portable and more accurate versions.

At first, chronographs were pocket watches that only functioned as stopwatches, not timepieces. It turns out that developing a stopwatch alone is easier than combining a ticking function.

The first chronographs had only one pusher concentric with the winding crown.

You could start, stop and reset it by pressing the button in succession.
However, in 1915, Gaston Breitling invented the separate press chronograph, and a few years later the two-button chronograph.
Since then, I haven't looked back, except for retro designs.

Early chronograph movements consisted of simple mechanical levers,
The two most common types of movements still in use today are:
Column wheel and coolant lever.

The column wheel is like a small castle tower that rotates one tooth with each press of the chronograph.

It works by having a sort of mechanical pawl that drops between the teeth on the column wheel.
Column wheels require precise design and construction, and are usually perceived by the user as noticeably smoother and more responsive. Column wheel chronographs are often more expensive and less common, but are more desirable to collectors due to the level of quality and attention to detail shown by their manufacturers.

Coolis levers also have their advantages.
It is easy to manufacture and very robust, and does not require the close tolerances required by column wheels.

*Coulis lever: The coulis lever is a lever built into a watch that moves the heart-shaped cam called the coulis back and forth and resets the chronograph.

In this type, a heart-shaped cam (coulisse) moves back and forth each time the chronograph button is pressed to start, stop and reset the chronograph.

The coulisse lever action is stiffer and requires more force to operate, making it less tactilely pleasant to operate, yet the vast majority of mechanical chronographs sold today use the coulisse lever movement, which was first introduced in 1974.

In the late 1960s, several watch companies were competing to develop the world's first self-winding (automatic) chronograph. Although automatic watches had become commonplace by that point, chronographs still had to be hand-wound due to their complexity and space constraints. Three groups narrowly crossed the finish line in 1969. A consortium of Hamilton, Buren, Breitling, and Heuer worked together to develop the Caliber 11, an automatic chronograph movement that used a tiny oscillating weight called a micro-rotor.

Meanwhile, Zenith introduced their own auto chrono, the El Primero (meaning "the first"), which used a full-size winding rotor, but Seiko in Japan developed their own 6139, which likely beat both the caliber and the Primero. Who made it first is a moot question, but since then most mechanical chronographs sold are automatic, while hand-wound ones are rare and desirable.

Whether automatic or manual, column wheel or coulisse lever, chronographs have long been the tools of pilots, astronauts, race car drivers, soldiers and doctors, as well as those who appreciate the tactile pleasure of the art of gears and levers with every push of a button. In short, there is a chronograph for every taste and budget.

Introducing the 5 Greatest Chronograph Watches

Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Chronograph Watch

Originally a Pennsylvania manufacturer making pocket watches for American railroads, by the 1960s Hamilton had a factory in Switzerland making chronographs for the Royal Air Force. The Khaki Pioneer pays homage to those watches with the same asymmetrical case and two registers. The chronograph is powered by Hamilton's H-31 caliber, which tracks time to the minute and has a power reserve of 60 hours.

TAG Heuer Formula 1 Chronograph Watch

No list of chronographs would be complete without TAG Heuer. Since its founding in 1860, the brand has been a leader in automobile and aviation chronographs, and the Autavia of the 1960s and '70s was an icon. The latest Formula 1 recalls the Autavia's tonneau case and bold bezel, but updates it with water resistance and sapphire crystal.

Longines column wheel chronograph watch

Chronographs with column wheel movements are a mark of high watchmaking prowess and often come with a price to match, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more affordable one than the proudly named Column Wheel Chronograph from Longines. Aside from being classically styled, the eponymous movement is a pleasure to operate, with clear and precise operation.

Bremont Boeing Model 247 Chronograph Wristwatch

Bremont started out making durable aviation-inspired chronographs, but the British brand took watches to a new level with its partnership with aircraft giant Boeing. Boasting a case made from the same steel Boeing uses in the landing gear of its 787s, the Model 247 will withstand anything while performing with chronometer-guaranteed accuracy.

Vacheron Constantin Harmony Monopusher Chronograph Wristwatch

In the world of increasingly complicated high-end watchmaking, there are only a few brands that design and produce their own chronographs in-house. Just this year, Vacheron introduced a new hand-wound chrono caliber inspired by a watch made in 1928. With two registers and a crown-mounted monopusher, the Harmony doesn't just stop time, it also transports you back in time.