If you ask just about any vintage watch enthusiast, the likelihood is that the chronograph will be their favourite complication. At first glance, it appears simple, almost trivial. However, with a myriad of different designs and functions, few complications have been as significant over the past century, as the chronograph.
As with many things in modern horology, these were first developed as tools, to be used during exhilarating car races, meticulous medical examinations or in more frivolous pursuits. Nowadays, choosing whether to have a chronograph or not is a matter of taste, rather than a question of functionality. It is a choice imbued with romanticism and nostalgia for the past.
A simple complication in essence, the scales featured on chronographs are really what bring the tool to life. From the often-found tachymeter to the more obscure regatta timer, these indications, typically printed on the dial and occasionally found on the bezel, place the stopwatch function of a chronograph within specific contexts. Each scale serves a different purpose, giving elapsed time its own distinct meaning.
A tachymeter, pulsometer and regatta timer
In this article, we cover some of our favourites. While a wide range of scales have been designed into chronographs over the past two centuries, we decided to concentrate on just five: the tachymeter, pulsometer, decimeter, telemeter and regatta timer. In unison, we feel that they have the most intriguing uses and histories for us to uncover. To show the worlds in which these scales belong, we have included intricate illustrations that display them in context, better than any photography that we could produce.
Start, Stop, Reset
Before we dive in, we thought it best to give some background on the chronograph as a whole. Not only because it is a significant part of the history of horology, but also, we hope, to provide context to how these scales were first introduced and used. With a view to focusing on the scales themselves, we will only provide a brief overview.
The word chronograph, like many in our field, comes from the Greek “chronos”, for time, and “graphein”, to write. While the origins of the word are easy enough to grasp, identifying the first chronograph proves trickier. It was assumed for many years that the first example was a box-shaped contraption, made by Frenchman Mathieu Rieussec for King Louis XVIII in 1821, who was an avid horseracing fan. It was made of spinning discs that, at the push of a button, had ink dropped onto them to mark the finishing time of a horse. It literally wrote the time.
There is another timer, which pre-dates the invention by Rieussec, that also competes for the title of first chronograph. Made by another Frenchman, Louis Moinet, in 1816, it can be said to more closely resemble a stopwatch, as it had no time telling function. However, what the pocket watch did have was separate start-stop and reset buttons, located at 11 and 12 o’clock. Accurate to the 60th of a second, thanks to its 30Hz movement, it was invented to help time astrological events. However, it is questionable whether we can truly call either of these timing devices, chronographs, as they did not display the time in parallel.
The first chronograph
For the first example of this, we must travel to nearly five decades after Moinet was timing planetary movements, to 1862, where we find Henri-Ferréol Piguet in the Vallée de Joux. It was then that Piguet created a pocket watch that could both display the time, as well as record elapsed time through the use of a central seconds hand that was started, stopped and reset thanks to separate pushers.
As many of you may have observed from the dates of these timers, none of them were wrist-worn. Indeed, it’s not until 1910, that we find a purpose-built wristwatch with an integrated chronograph. It will come as no surprise to enthusiasts, that it was produced by Longines. Prior to this, there were a few small pocket watches, with lugs soldered on, that could be strapped to the wrist, but nothing quite as purpose-built for the wrist as this. Longines’ timepiece was accurate to one fifth of a second, operated through the central crown that acted as a pusher. If we then jump forward two decades, we see Breitling patenting the first wrist-worn chronograph, with separate start-stop and reset pushers. Some years later, the claim to the first automatic chronograph is hotly disputed between Zenith, Seiko and the Chronomantic group of brands.
Today, the cult status gained by chronographs cannot be overstated. For many collectors, these watches combine efficient, functional design with the charm of an object built for a specific, though now largely irrelevant, purpose. As John Goldberger himself put it in an interview with us,
“I’ve always been very fascinated with the uses, because they are tools to certain industries, like for military use, car racing and aviation.”
Steel chronographs especially, on account of their non-precious, utilitarian base metal, have captured the imagination of the vintage community at large. Indeed, it seems difficult to think of a more influential, vintage trend from recent times. The renewed focus on vintage chronographs has elevated long defunct and unknown brands, such as Universal Genève or Ulysse Nardin, to cult status. The impact of the Rolex Daytona, perhaps the most recognisable chronograph, if not watch, in the world, does not need further explanation.
Scales are what give much of these watches their charm. With specific functions attributed to every example, they allow collectors to imagine and, in some cases, romanticise, the past of a specific chronograph.
For measuring average speed over a predetermined distance
The tachymeter and its associated universe
Possibly the most popular and recognisable of all scales, the tachymeter has almost become synonymous with the complication. It can be found on many of the most iconic vintage chronographs, from those associated with famous races, to watches that went to the Moon. Funnily enough, it is now also automatically integrated into many modern watches, with few of the owners – and perhaps even the designers – being aware of its original purpose.
Enabling its users to measure their average speed over a predetermined distance, normally one mile or one kilometre, this scale grew in popularity as motor-racing took off, both as a competitive sport and as a hobby, during the mid-20th century. While we may not use them anymore, thanks to the advance in speedometer technology, back then, chronographs equipped with a tachymeter were very much tools fit for a purpose. Take, for example, a Heuer used almost every day by a test driver for Lotus, a British car manufacturer previously involved in Formula One racing. This Heuer Autavia ref. 2446C, bought by the John Parramint, was used to check the reliability of a new car’s speedometer, as he put it through its paces. By the time the watch came up for auction a few decades later, with all the wear and patina one would expect to see, it had travelled to Monza, Nürburgring, Silverstone and other legendary circuits around Europe.
When it was originally purchased in 1968, it only cost Parramint £57. At the time, it was the cheaper option, when compared to the its equally well-equipped peer, the Omega Speedmaster. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, back in the day, many of these chronographs could be purchased in utility stores, or issued as standard equipment for specific groups. Today, the idea of obtaining these watches in such a practical context, seems foreign to us, but back then, they really were just tools.
A vintage-inspired poster for the tachymeter
The first evidence we have of the tachymeter scale is a patent filed by Leon Guinand, a Swiss watchmaker, who produced intricate pocket and wrist-worn chronographs in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then, seven years later, F. Amez-Droz introduced the “snail” tachymeter, which enabled the reading of slower speeds, with far greater ease. These scales were then integrated into wrist-worn chronographs, as more and more manufacturers started to shift their production away from pocket watches in the early 20th century.
What pushed the popularity of the tachymeter was the increase, not only in car production, but also in people using their vehicles for recreational and sporting activities. While wristwatches were getting more and more accurate, the motor car was still in its infancy. In fact, it was often more accurate to measure average speed using a tachymeter, than with the mechanical speedometers that were available at the time. This explains why, in 1968, Parramint thought it necessary to check the work of the Lotus mechanics against his trusty Heuer chronograph.
On the finishing line
The romantic nature of these scales can be seen as linked to the great motor racing moments of the 20th century. Whether it was those who raced in the Mille Miglia, or Ayrton Senna wearing his two-tone Tag Heuer at the Formula One World Drivers' Championships.
One also shouldn’t forget the now legendary models which have featured tachymeters. While it may be more closely associated with going to the Moon, the Omega Speedmaster was originally conceived as a driver’s watch. Much like the coveted Rolex Daytona, which also sports the scale on the outer bezel, rather than on the dial. The popularity and omnipresence of these models in the watch industry, and in jewellers’ windows around the world has helped to elevate the tachymeter, from the tool it was first imagined to be, into an essential addition to any sporting chronograph.
For measuring heart rate
The pulsometer and its associated universe
Whilst not as omnipresent as the first scale, the importance or ingenuity of the pulsometer should not be underestimated. To fully understand it, we first to have go back to 1701. It was then that English physician, Sir John Floyer, introduced the idea of measuring a patient’s heart rate as an indicator of their health. Floyer employed the watchmaker, Samuel Watson, to adapt a watch for this purpose. However, this early device cannot really be considered the first example of a pulsometer scale, as it merely helped the measuring of someone’s heart rate.
Indeed, the key distinguishing feature of a pulsometer scale is that it reduces the number of pulsations a doctor has to count in order to take an accurate heart rate reading. In practice, when using a pulsometer, a doctor will start the chronograph function at the first heartbeat and stop it after hearing a certain number. The stopped chronograph hand will then indicate the correct number of heartbeats per minute. The required number of beats is always indicated on the scale itself, usually 15 or 30. Prior to this scale being introduced, the standard practice was to count for a full minute or to count for a smaller amount of time, say 15 seconds, and multiply the result.
Some pocket watches from the late 19th century are known to feature a pulsometer, with the scales later appearing in wristwatches, about two or three decades later. While the purpose of this scale is certainly defunct today, when it was first introduced, it would have been nothing short of vital. There was no longer any need for medical professionals to count pulsations for a full minute or carry out error-prone multiplication in their head, while busy on the ward. This scale helped save time, while also drastically reducing the potential for human error.
A vintage-inspired poster for the pulsometer
Historically, the text used for the pulsometer is almost always in French, as a result of the watches being produced in Switzerland. That being said, a handful of watches have emerged with English writing on the dial, supposedly due to them being produced for the American market. On rare occasions, you may also see the pulsometer paired with an asthmometric scale that is designed to measure breath rates, another indicator used by doctors to quickly examine a patient’s state. Similarly labelled to the pulsometer, this is a slightly less accurate system of measuring, hence why it is less commonly found than the pulsometer.
Perhaps the most specific and purpose driven of any scale found on vintage watches, the pulsometer can be found on a wide range of vintage chronographs, especially from the ‘40s and ‘50s. During that era, doctors had the dual advantage of being part of a practical profession, whilst at the same time typically being rather economically prosperous. Simultaneously, the scale also appealed to some collectors looking to add an unusual detail to a watch they were commissioning. This combination of elements is precisely why pulsometers can be found on some of the most refined chronographs from the past.
Patek Philippe 130 in steel? Yes. Tasti Tondi 1463 pink on pink? Indeed. What about the Rolex Daytona? That too. Indeed, some examples have emerged with a bright blue pulsation scale found along the outer edge, having been nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ by some. The pulsometer is the only scale to ever have been added to a Daytona dial, with the whole dial layout having to be modified as a result of the space occupied by the scale. For anyone familiar with Rolex, you will know that this level of customisation is highly unusual. Only about ten are known to exist.
Inside the doctor's office
On account of the purpose-built nature of the pulsometer, and the exclusive family of watches it has inhabited, it is no surprise that the scale has both captured the imagination of vintage watch collectors, as well as the attention of those designing modern ones. Indeed, in the past few years, the likes of Longines, Montblanc and others have attempted to imbue some of their modern releases with vintage charm by adding a pulsometer, while at the same time often adding a splash of colour.
For measuring to the hundredth of a minute
The decimeter and its associated universe
Remaining within the scientific field, this next scale was developed in order to help easily translate time into a decimal. A simple, yet useful, function, it proved to be especially practical in the world of industry and scientific research, where accurate timings were needed for specific calculations and statistical analysis. The decimeter breaks a minute down into 100 parts around the outside of the dial.
Not as popular as it once was, this scale is more niche in its appeal, having never gained the widespread acceptance of the tachymeter, for example. It also lacks the distinctiveness of being labelled on the dial, as the previous two examples were. This is partially due to the fact that this scale requires all 360° of the dial to be useful. A clean and unobtrusive design, you could be forgiven for almost forgetting it was there. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the indications on the periphery of the dial are broken down into 100, rather than 60.
A vintage-inspired poster for the decimeter
The inclusion of this scale meant that far more accurate measurements could be taken, helping to make the timings of machining and experiments far more precise. Decimeter scales can often be found on mid-20th century watches made by Heuer, notorious among collectors for creating purpose-built tools. Indeed, many Carrera chronographs are known to have been sold, and even signed on the dial, by Fisher Scientific, a company that sold technical equipment to laboratories for their experiments. According to Eric Wind’s article on the very first Heuer Carrera, Jack Heuer has also publicly joked about scientists using their budget to purchase technical equipment from Fisher, sometimes adding a Carrera chronograph to the order. Discretely, some scientists would then supposedly “forget” to take the Carrera off and make it their own.
Interestingly enough, the importance of offering a choice of scales for the commercial viability of a chronograph collection, is exemplified through Jack Heuer’s own experiences. After taking a course on dial legibility at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Heuer became obsessed with the subject. He wanted to create dials which were as clean and subdued as possible. So much so, that he suggested that his Carrera collection of chronographs should have no scale at all.
Inside the laboratory
However, market forces required various tracks be added as options. For commercial success, it was important that buyers should be able select the scale most suited to their specific needs. The variety of scales available for the same model meant the brand even allocated a separate reference number to watches with a decimeter on the periphery. For instance, with the Carrera 2447 D, the D indicates the inclusion of a decimeter track.
For measuring the distance from an audible event
The telemeter and its associated universe
The penultimate scale we will be looking at holds a special place in the heart of vintage aficionados. Indeed, the telemeter was a common chronograph track in the ‘30s and ‘40s, principally used to measure artillery distances during the war. In essence, a telemeter can be used to tell how far away something is, by timing the difference between when you see something happen and when you hear it. It works off the fact that the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound. Let’s take a loud event, like an artillery gun firing for example. When this happens, you would first see the flash of a gun going off in the distance and then, a few seconds later, depending on how far away you are, you would hear the sound of the cannon. For reference, if you were to stop the chronograph hand at the 30 seconds mark, this would indicate that the artillery firing at you is approximately 10km away.
This proved extremely useful to the military, especially during World War II. With soldiers having a chronograph equipped with a telemeter strapped to their wrist, they were able to quickly work-out just how far the enemy line was. Crucially, this meant they were able to adjust their own artillery, in order to aim at their opponents with pinpoint accuracy. Nowadays, a noticeably more trivial use of a telemeter could be to determine whether a lightning storm is approaching your next golf hole, or whether it is travelling away from it.
A vintage-inspired poster for the telemeter
Over the years, as warfare moved from an entrenched position, to a more mobile and dynamic affair, with bombers taking the role of artillery cannons, these telemeter chronographs fell out of favour with the armed forces. As with all tools, the biggest risk is irrelevance. However, they found a new home with pilots who wanted to work out approximately how far from a storm they were. This did require some further calculation on behalf of the pilots, as these scales had been designed to work based on the speed of sound at sea level, 340 meters a second. However, with some adapting, they continued to meet a specific need.
Given that a telemeter was principally used in a military context, the scale is more often found in truly utilitarian watches, from the likes of Universal Genève, Omega or Doxa, among others. Rather unusually, a small handful of Patek Philippe watches have also been known to house a telemeter scale. Dissociated from its original purpose, the appeal of a telemeter scale within a mid-century Patek Philippe chronograph speaks for itself. Beyond being exceedingly rare, there is also the added appeal of just how paradoxical the combination is. A track designed for military use integrated within a refined chronograph, from the archetypal Swiss high-end watchmaker.
On the battlefield
Either marked to show miles or kilometres, these scales were often depicted alongside other ones, notably a tachymeter. Indeed, a relatively common configuration is a telemeter on the outer section of the dial, with a snail tachymeter in the centre. On account of their military associations, and almost complete disappearance following the war, telemeter scales have come to be particularly sought-after and appreciated by vintage aficionados.
For counting down to the start of a regatta
The regatta timer and its associated universe
Perhaps more than any other, this final scale was designed with a very specific function in mind: counting down to the start of a regatta. The start of a yacht race is not as straightforward an affair as those on land. With all the contestants having to be constantly in motion, waiting on the start line isn’t really an option.
In fact, at the start of any race, a good yachtsman will want their boat to be going as close to full speed as possible. To achieve this, they need to have their timing down to a tee. If you get this wrong and cross the line too soon, you risk a heavy penalty. Cross it too late and too slow, you’re already at the back of the pack.
To ensure that sailors get this timing right, they will often sport a chronograph with a regatta timer on their wrist. This can take different forms on the dial; however, it always contains the combination of blue, red and white. It can be displayed as a sub-dial, divided into differently coloured thirds. It can also appear as a series of five dot apertures that shift from blue, to red, to white, as the timer counts down, thanks to a rotating disc below the dial.
A vintage-inspired poster for the regatta timer
There is also the format made popular by Rolex with the Yacht Master II, with scale counting down from 10-0 inside the hour markers and on the bezel, with an extra hand that counts down the minutes after the pusher is depressed. This one is also programmable for different lengths of countdown, which can be helpful for uses in other areas of life.
At the start of a regatta, there will be a horn sounded, indicating to all of those taking part to start their regatta timers as the five-minute (normally, although this can differ) countdown begins. This allows for the various competing boats to jockey for position, and get their craft up to full speed, just as the countdown finishes and the race officially begins. Precious seconds can make all the difference in these races, so getting it right from the beginning is absolutely vital.
Within the vintage world, Heuer and Yema are probably best known for producing these nautical pieces, but there have also been notable examples made by the likes of Lemania, Memosail, Panerai, Omega and many others. A particularly elusive and legendary vintage execution of the Regatta Timer is the Rolex Paul Newman Yachtmaster. You read that right. In the late ‘60s, Rolex made and sold a watch with a prototype Paul Newman dial, designed for those who competed in Regattas. The original Yachtmaster – which Rolex would reintroduce some years later in a completely different form – was only ever made in three examples. As shared by John Goldberger in his Talking Watches, the first belonged to and was then sold by Eric Clapton, the second resides in the Rolex safe in Geneva, and the third example belongs to Goldberger himself.
Racing on the water
The fact that such a niche functionality has gained wide appeal among collectors, and has been executed in so many different forms, proves a salient point. That nowadays, the purpose of these scales is irrelevant. Rather, what matters most is the sense of adventure and nostalgia for the past which they convey.
We would like to thank Prints Harry for creating these wonderfully rich illustrations to go alongside our article. You can find more of his work here.