The amazing story of the world's first ever chronograph

The 1816 Louis Moinet timepiece cemented the watchmaker's place in history.

Neil Churchill June 14, 2016

For nearly two centuries it was believed that Nicolas Rieussec was the creator of the first chronograph watch; a milestone moment in the history of horology.

But that all changed when one day in 2012 when Jean-Marie Schaller, CEO of Louis Moinet (below), went to a watch auction at Christie’s. “Moinet wrote a book in 1816, where he described the first high-frequency watch, but today nobody knew where it was," Schalle told EDGAR in an exclusive interview.

"One day, I received an Internet alert saying that a similar watch would be sold at auction in Geneva. Nobody, including me, knew it was that actual watch, but I went for it and bought it for AED 200,000. It was only after did I discover that it was actually a chronograph that dated six years prior to Rieussec’s patented invention. We spent a year researching and analysing, and finally in March 2013 we received confirmation from leading watch experts that it was the world’s first chronograph watch." 

It’s fair to say that the discovery re-wrote the history of watchmaking, and also put into perspective the huge influence Louis Moinet had on the industry and its future. According to hallmarks on the dust cover, work on the chronograph began in 1815 and was completed the following year. 

However, Moinet himself didn’t call it a chronograph, a term that wasn’t introduced until much later, preferring to give it the name ‘compteur de tierces’ meaning ‘third counter’.

The timepiece was ahead of its time. The central hand measured to one sixtieth of a second, far beyond other watches of that era which only measured to a tenth. The elapsed minutes and seconds were recorded on the sub-dials, and the hours on the 24-hour dial.

The two buttons on the case controlled the stop, start and reset functions for the central hand, which today qualifies it as a chronograph. The return to zero function, so common nowadays, was revolutionary for its time.

It also achieved 216,000 vibrations an hour at the then unbelievable frequency of 30Hz, making Moinet the godfather of high-frequency time measurement. To give that some perspective, today’s watches commonly beat at 28,800 vibrations an hour, or 4Hz. It took a full 100 years for a watch to be made that beat Moinet’s record.

But why did the watch need such a high frequency? Moinet made the chronograph for astrological observations; to time the passage of stars and planets. He made the ‘compteur de tierces’ to set the precise distance between the crosshairs on his telescope. 

Another incredible part of the watch was its power reserve of 30 hours. That may not sound like much today, but back then he needed at least 24 hours from the battery-hungry frequency to successfully time the transits of stars, and the 30 hours was huge. To minimise the watch’s energy consumption the movement ran on oiled rubies, a process still copied today.

The chronograph’s discovery at auction that day in 2012 and the subsequent proving of the watch's ability cemented Louis Moinet’s place in watchmaking’s hall of fame, and he is now rightly regarded as one of the all time great horologists.