What Are Chronograph Watches?

What are chronograph watches? To answer that, one would need to think about a stopwatch. With that being said, they are capable of telling time just like a normal watch, but can also track elapsed time like a stopwatch. Chronograph watches continue to be one of the more popular styles of watches, but the complication is often underutilized.

As with any complication in today’s world of smartphones and apps, the chronograph may not be absolutely necessary for most people, but it is one of the more frequently usable complications found on a watch today. In this post, we’re going to be focused on explaining the details and features of the chronograph watch.

A Brief History Lesson

Louis Moinet

The earliest chronograph dates back to the early 1800’s. It was invented in 1815 and completed in 1816 by, Louis Moinet. However, the chronograph that was invented by Moinet was for working with astronomical equipment.

It wasn’t until 1821 that French watchmaker, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, created the first marketable chronograph. The timepiece was created because King Louis XVIII requested a timepiece that could easily time horse races, which was a favorite pastime of his.

As we can see today, the results of this invention have had a major impact on the world of sports. Races of all sorts can now be timed and records can be recorded and broken over and over again.

In 1844, an improvement was made on the original. This improvement was created by Adolphe Nicole and it added a reset feature to reset the chronograph timer to allow successive measurements.

Over the years, more contributors made small changes to the chronograph. Some of the changes included, a central seconds hand, additional pushers located at the two and four positions, and a 30-minute counter. The three-pusher design has endured and can be found on most chronograph style watches today.

In the first part of the 20th century, the chronograph watch began to rapidly rise in popularity. This was largely due to how useful the function was to aviators. During this time, fixed-bezel Tachymeters became a popular feature among chronograph watches. Found on the bezel of the watch, a Tachymeter is used to calculate the speed or distance traveled.

Omega Speedmaster Professional

The year of 1969 brought forth the most significant innovation to the chronograph. With people all over wanting to get a chronograph around their wrist, manufacturers were all striving for opportunities to patent an automatic chronograph watch. It wasn’t long until the first automatic chronograph was introduced.

The chronograph also played a major role in the Apollo 13 explosion in April of 1970. On April 15, shortly after launching, the shuttle had an explosion and it was almost certain that the astronauts on-board would be killed.

While I won’t go too deep into this story in this post, the three astronauts were saved due to the Omega Speedmaster chronograph watches they were ordered to wear by President Eisenhower.

Using the function of the chronograph, they were able to recalculate their reentry to Earth. This is amazing, especially given the advanced technology that was installed on-board had all failed and a simple wristwatch was their saving grace.

In today’s world, we still see the majority of pilots wearing chronograph watches and it’s no doubt that the Apollo 13 incident was a major influence on this.

Using a Chronograph Watch

In this section, I will explain how to use a chronograph watch. Although it may appear to be confusing to use, it really isn’t. A chronograph watch is basically a stop watch and is fairly easy to use.

On your chronograph watch, you will find 3 knobs. You will likely be familiar with knob in the middle, however, the two other knobs at the 2 and 4 position are for the chronograph function.

These knobs are called pushers. The top pusher (2 position) is to start and stop the timer and the bottom pusher (4 position) is the split-time and reset pusher.

The vast majority of chronograph watches are going to have the normal minute and hour hand, but the second hand will actually be for the chronograph function. You’re also going to find other sub-dials for the chronograph minute hand, hour hand, and the watch’s second hand.

Diagram of a typical chronograph watch

So basically, to make sense of this, the sub-dial for the watch’s second hand is the second timer for the actual watch and the chronograph second hand is the hand that is used for the timer function. This hand can be reset and stopped by using the pushers and will only be moved when you start the stopwatch timer.

Simply put, press the start pusher (2 position) to start the timer and stop the timer and if you want to reset it back to zero, press the reset pusher (4 position). Some chronographs also allow you to set a timer by pulling out the crown and using the start pusher to set the chronograph second hand to a specific time.

For example, you can set the timer for 30 seconds, push the crown back in and then hit the start pusher to start your 30 second timer.

We’ve covered the stop watch like features of a chronograph, but you might be wondering what those numbers around the bezel of the watch are for. That is called a tachymeter and by using it, you are able to measure things such as speed and distance traveled.

Measuring Speed with a Tachymeter

To measure speed, follow this formula: T = 3,600/t

A chronograph watch with a Tachymeter on the watch Bezel

T represents the numbers on the scale of the Tachymeter, t is the time in seconds it took for whatever to happen that is being measured by the chronograph function of the watch, and 3,600 is the number of seconds in an hour.

For example, if you are driving on a road trip and it takes you 45 seconds to travel a mile.

Using the formula T = 3,600/45, you would end up with T equaling 80. If you look at the 45 second mark on the dial of the watch, it should point to 80 on the Tachymeter scale. This would tell you that you are driving at 80 miles per hour.

Measuring Distance with a Tachymeter

Measuring distance is a little different as you must first know what your traveling speed is and it also needs to stay consistent.

For example, let’s say you are driving at 80 mph. Press the start pusher to start the chronograph second hand and when the second hand reaches 80 on the Tachymeter scale, that means that you have driven 1 mile. It is fairly simple to measure, however, your speed must stay constant.

Choosing Your Chronograph Watch

A chronograph watch with a bracelet style band

So now that you understand how to use a chronograph it’s time to talk about some tips to help you select your next timepiece.

When choosing a chronograph, you’ll obviously want to choose one that is easy to read and operate. I would suggest selecting one that has only the dials and features that you’ll actually use.

Convenience is also important. You’ll want to choose a timepiece that has at least two pushers so that you can use the stopwatch function easily.

Other features such as water resistance, automatic winding and illuminated time markers add to convenience as well.

As far as the styling goes, you’ll want to get one that you like as far as the looks go. Chronographs are excellent as everyday watches or watches that you may want to dress up for your work attire. While they can be worn with formal suits, I believe it’s still best to opt for a dress watch in that situation.


In this post we explained what are chronograph watches and how they are used. The chronograph has obvious uses for certain activities, but it is also one of the most functional complications for the every day man as well. You can time anything from how long it takes for you run a lap to how long it takes for your spouse to get ready for a date.

Either way, a chronograph watch is bound to be somewhat useful to you and is typically the one complication that most men want in a watch. They are simple to use and they also look great on your wrist as the pushers and sub-dials can create a unique look.

What do you think about chronograph watches? Feel free to let us know in the comment box below.

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4 thoughts on “What Are Chronograph Watches?”

  1. This type of watch would be perfect for my soon to be husband. He has to dress nicely for work, but I think he would still be able to get away with wearing a chronograph watch. As a teacher, I enjoyed reading about the history of the watch. Overall, a great informative article, that I truly enjoyed.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post! Chronograph watches are great because they can be used when dressing up or down and come in many different styles, but have enough flair with the sub dials to stand out!

  2. I like the way that you explained all the features. Although I wouldn’t use them all, a chronograph watch would definitely be useful. I’m from a family of nurses, and I could definitely see the benefit a nurse would have with one of these.

    Love the story about the Apollo 13; I had never heard that before. It’s amazing how such a common item can save lives.

    • Thanks for reading! The Apollo 13 story is cool because it shows just how practical this complication is. Most watch features are somewhat obsolete with the advent of smartphones, but I think the Chronograph complication is one that could always be used at one point or another.


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