Ask three different watch collectors who produced the world’s first automatic chronograph and you’ll receive three different answers.
Some will insist it was Zenith, who announced their El Primero movement in January of 1969 — the first automatic chronograph announced to the public. Others will claim it was Seiko, who released the Japan-only 6139 automatic chronograph in May of 1969. Most, however, will point to Heuer’s famous Calibre 11 movement — a product of years of work by Heuer, Breitling, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz, which was released in August of 1969 inside the new Carrera, Monaco, and Autavia.
The “first” of these chronograph movements is still a hotly-debated topic today, more than 45 years after all three were released. Far more interesting, however, is the history of chronograph watches as a whole.
Watchmaking History Rewritten
Until recently, the history of the chronograph was well established. French watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec invented and named the chronograph (literally “time writer”) in 1821 in order to accurately time horses racing on the Champ de Mars. The next year, he filed for a patent on the device, calling it the “seconds chronograph.” It was an accurate device, capable of timing races and events to a tenth of a second, and its impact at the time was immense.
Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec’s achievement was regarded as the world’s first chronograph until the beginning of 2013, when another chronograph–this one five years older and built for a different purpose–was discovered.
In early 2013, a French watchmaker named Louis Moinet altered watchmaking history. In 1815, Moinet had designed a pocket stopwatch for astronomers. The device could measure recorded time to 1/60th of a second—an incredible degree of precision for such an early timepiece. This precision was achieved through a running speed of 216,000 vibrations per hour, or 30 Hz.
When the watch was auctioned by Christie’s in 2012, it was sold for just 62,500 CHF ($67,443), and went largely unnoticed by many bidders.
The World’s First Wristwatch Chronograph
Almost a century later, the chronograph made its way into a wristwatch. In 1913, Longines built a monopusher chronograph using the company’s 13.33Z caliber movement. Accurate to a fifth of a second, it spawned numerous chronographs from competitors over the next decade.
Two years later in 1915, Breitling released the first wristwatch chronograph with an independent push piece. Universal Geneve followed with its own wristwatch chronograph in 1917, with other brands following with their own chronograph wristwatches over the next decade.
Heuer’s Innovative Rotating Tachymeter
Throughout the early 20th century, chronograph wristwatches grew in popularity and developed new features. Tachymeter scales appeared on the bezels of some chronograph watches for the use of aviators and racers.
In 1958, Heuer–a brand favored by racers–started incorporating a rotating bezel into some of its dashboard timepieces to help with the measurement of time and distance during races. Over the following years, that bezel, which originally only featured an arrow to mark lap times, developed into a version with a rotating tachymeter.
In 1967, the rotating tachymeter bezel made its way into the new version of the Heuer Autavia — the first chronograph wristwatch to feature it. The Autavia went on to become one of the most popular wristwatches for racers and racing enthusiasts.
1969: The First Automatic Chronographs
In 1969, three groups competed to release the first automatic chronograph. Working in a secret joint venture, Heuer, Breitling, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz showcased the Caliber 11 (also known as the “Chronomatic”) to media in simultaneous press conferences held in New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and Beirut.
Heuer released its Caliber 11 and 12 chronograph movements in three watches: the Carrera, Autavia, and Monaco. Breitling released the Chronomatic, Automatic Navitimer, Co-Pilot, and Chronomat. The first Chronomatic watches remain valuable collector pieces today.
Today, automatic chronograph watches are commonplace. The next time you look down at your wrist to time something, remember that while the technology in your watch is barely 45 years old, it was over 154 years in the making.