A History of The Chronograph

History of The Chronograph

What do a Horse Race, Prisoners in World War 2 and Apollo 13 all have in common?

Well it seems more than we realise. The short answer is a watch. To be more specific, a chronograph watch.

In 1816 Louis Moinet created the first chronograph. He did it to track astrological movements in the night sky. That you think would have been enough to launch this new technology but it wasn't the thought of greater human understanding that the chronograph became popular.

In 1821, King Louis XVIII wanted a way to time horses during races. Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec came up with the widely available incantation of the time peice. It would drop ink on a paper marking the time. This is where we have the word Chronograph originate. Chrono for time and Graph for writer.

Longines, almost a century later, started to produce chronograph watches but not for pilots or drivers but for horse racing fans. An advertisment in 1881 announces how this watch would help pick champions. A copy can be found on their site here. 

In World War 2, in Luft Stalag 3 sat a prisoner of war named Corporal Clive James Nutting. In 1943 he ordered a Rolex chronograph watch. It made it way to him and for over a year he used it to time the German patrols outside of the wire. His timing were crucial to an escape that inspired films such as "The Great Escape". Without the timings, the knowledge of when to go would have been left to chance.

Apollo 13 was headed to the moon when a catastophic event put the mission off and had the world waiting for three astronauts to return to earth. Without the use of computer guidance or other tools that would normally be available, Jack Swigert used the chronograph feature on his watch to time engine burns so that the crew could return safely. His Omega Speedmaster gave them the ability to know when to start and, more importantly, when to shut off the engines.

The ability to make acurate timings has always been important in our history. Today we have digital ways to track that information but a mechanical solution will always be needed in those times that technology fails.