A beginners guide into the pulse pounding world of watches and motorsports

Watches and cars have been inextricably linked for decades, but none as much as the racing watch and motorsport industry. This is largely due to the inescapable need for high accuracy on the racetrack. But what exactly is a racing watch? As its name suggests, a racing watch is a purpose-built tool watch specifically made to measure race times, whether it be car, motorcycle, horse or yacht race. And if upon reading that last statement you immediately conclude that a racing watch must be a chronograph, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, while all modern racing watches are chronographs, not all chronographs are racing watches.

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In its simplest form, a chronograph is a type of watch that includes a stopwatch function, and typically employs two chronograph pushers flanking the crown, which are used to start and stop (the upper pusher), and reset the chronograph (the lower pusher). And while chronographs with a single pusher (called mono-pushers) are a different animal altogether, even those chronographs usually feature a central chronograph hand with two or three sub-dials (also called registers) to display the elapsed hours and minutes of the event being timed with the third register usually reserved for the running seconds. Crucially, most chronographs also include a scale from which certain types of events are measured. And there’s the rub: the different types of chronographs are determined by the type of scale brandished on their bezels or dials.

A Pulsometer scale, for example, was developed for doctors and measures the heart rate; a Telemetric scale was made for the military, and measures the distance between a visible and audible event; while a Decimeter scale was developed for scientists and breaks a minute down into 100 parts. The scale that differentiates the racing watch from these other chronographs is the Tachymeter, which measures average speed based on time traveled over a fixed distance. This makes the tachymeter the most crucial component in a racing watch. And since this type of scale is often used “at speed” or “on the fly,” most racing chronographs go out of their way to look the part. This means that modern racing watches are not only defined by their technical prowess, but also by their aesthetic and sartorial abilities.

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That’s right, the handsome, chiseled good looks of today’s luxury racing watches is another element that sets them apart from other chronographs. And by bringing masculine characteristics to this type of chronograph, many of which are already infused with exotic colors and adrenaline-fueled designs, only served to fuel the allure of the racing watch. Just look at the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona or any racing chronograph by TAG Heuer if you need further evidence. But what ever it is called, whether racing watch, or racing chronograph, or just plain chronograph, not a lot of people are aware that the racing watch preceded motorsports by at least 6 decades.

The debate on who actually invented the first chronograph, in fact, raged on for decades. For the longest time, the “Chronograph with Seconds Indicator” by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec reigned supreme as the first “chronograph” ever developed. That is until May 14, 2012. Christie’s “Important Watches” sale was being held at Geneva’s Four Seasons Hotel de Bergues, and during a “lull” in the proceedings, a small bidding war between a small independent watchmaker and a major horological giant raged over an inconspicuous chronometer that almost escaped everyone’s attention.

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The inconspicuous chronometer was the ‘compteur de tierces’, the major horological giant was indeed a titan in the watch industry, and the small independent watchmaker was the Atelier Louis Moinet, represented by its founder, Jean-Marie Schaller.  Apparently, the compteur de tierces is a 1/60th-of-a-second counter, and according to the hallmarks on its dust cover the counter was started in 1815 and completed the following year…a full 5 years before the invention of the “Chronograph with Seconds Indicator” by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec.  And it’s inventor?  None other than Louis Moinet, who made the timer, not for the timing and recording of sporting events, but for use in astronomy, specifically to track the movements of heavenly bodies.

That was the small beginning of a very big deal because it established first and foremost that Louis Moinet completed the compteur de tierces in 1816, while Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec created the “Chronograph with Seconds Indicator” in 1821. This firmly established Louis Moinet as the ACTUAL inventor of the first chronograph, and not Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec as it was previously thought. The compteur de tierces was also the forerunner of high-frequency timekeeping, beating at 216,000 vibrations per hour and measuring sixtieths of a second, making it the most precise measuring instrument of any kind in its day.

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Rieussec’s “Chronograph with Seconds Indicator,” on the other hand, shouldn’t be dismissed either, and was created to consistently measure the time horses take to travel the prescribed race distance during horse races. It dropped a blot of ink on a paper dial to mark the timed interval. The length of the ink mark would indicate how much time had elapsed. Thus, the chronograph as we know it was born. The word itself is derived from the Greek words chronos, which means time, and graphien, which means that which writes time. The expression caught on to such a point that it replaced “chronometer” and “timer.” It isn’t known how or when the term evolved but soon people were calling the device “Rieussec’s chronograph”, and In the patent registered on March 9, 1822, the 112 x 85 x 58 mm machine encased in a mahogany box was referred to as a “timepiece called a ‘seconds chronograph,’ which records the elapsed time of several successive events without requiring the observer to look at it.”

And there you have it: racing watches for beginners. To be fair, this just scratched the surface. We haven’t even touched on the history of the modern racing chronograph (such as the TAG Heuer Monaco or the Omega Speedmaster). Also, not all racing watches are created equal with some racing watches standing head and shoulders above others (see the aforementioned Rolex Cosmograph Daytona for reference). But there is a reason why watches and motor sport have been so inseparable, and that’s because the modern racing watch is not only so incredibly capable, they’re also damn good looking, and there you have the essence of the racing chronograph.