The people who buy watches in order to tell the time are the same people who buy cars for transportation. An iPhone is more accurate than a Patek Phillipe and a Camry gets better gas mileage than a Ferrari… but who cares? Beautifully made watches and automobiles transcend the need to be useful.
These days using a mechanical watch to keep track of racing times would be insane. Automobile racing in the 21st century has developed technology so precise it can measure times up to 1000th of a second.
Still, the world of automobile racing inspired mechanical watches is alive and well. The most prominent watch complication associated with motorsports today is the chronograph. Although a chronograph doesn’t have much of a practical purpose recording official race times, its romantic connection to a sport where ever second counts has made it the standard.
Chronographs have been around since the early 1800’s. In 1821 Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec developed a machine that would actually drop ink on the dial when it was stopped to mark the amount of time that had passed. It was accurate to one second and according to the registered patent it was referred to as a “seconds chronograph.”
The word Chronograph is rooted in the Greek words chromos (time) and graphein (to write). That title made sense for Rieussec’s invention because his machine (encased in a large wooden box) would actually “write” on the dial. Rieussec’s invention was certainly a breakthrough but it bears little resemblance to the chronographs of the modern era.
Louis Moinet’s 1816 stopwatch (which was at least 100 years ahead of its time) was the true beginning of chronographs as we know them today. The Moinet stopwatch ran at an astounding frequency (30 Hz / 216,000 vph) and could accurately measure time up to 1/60th of a second. Since the time is actually “seen” rather than “written” an accurate title for his invention would have been a “chronoscope.” Chronos (time) and skopein (to see).
A “chronoscope” is what we see on mechanical wristwatches today. A sweeping second hand stopped to visually display how much time has passed. The title “chronograph” is a misnomer made popular by Rieussec’s invention. Whether you are baking bread or racing cars if you are using a mechanical chronograph to measure the passing of time; just know that what you are looking at is actually a chronoscope.