A chronograph is a watch that also records time intervals like a stopwatch. The earliest chronograph wristwatches appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1902, Patek Philippe was awarded a patent for a “split-seconds chronograph” and in 1916 the watchmaker introduced its first complicated ladies’ wristwatch—it had a five-minute repeater. By 1923, Patek Philippe had created the first split-seconds chronograph wristwatch—its chronographs with tachometers from the late 1930s are among the most prized wristwatches available.

Another Swiss watchmaker, Heuer, introduced chronographic functions to its wristwatches around 1913—such capabilities were already present in Heuer pocket watches and its dashboard chronographs. Like Patek Philippe, the earliest Heuer chronograph wristwatches were made for women. Men’s chronograph wristwatches followed in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. These watches typically had round stainless-steel cases, gold numerals on white dials, and hands that suggested an Art Nouveau influence. A button set within the crown controlled the watch’s chronographic functions.

During this period, in 1916, Heuer made the first timer to record tenths of a second. That led to Heuer’s selection as the official timekeeper for the Olympic Games of 1920, 1924, and 1928. In 1930, Heuer introduced a flyback mechanism for its chronographs and patented a waterproof case. Soon it was producing steel Flieger chronographs for the German air force.

By the 1940s, triple-calendar Heuer chronographs began to appear. Cases came in steel or gold, with dials ranging from black to copper to white. These are among the most collectible vintage Heuers. After the war, auto-themed wristwatches were added, including the 1962 Autavia, which took its named from Heuer’s dashboard timers from the late 1950s. The elegant Carrera chronograph line was introduced the following year—both it and the Autavia featured movements manufactured by Valjoux.

One of Heuer’s biggest chronograph competitors was Breitling, which, in 1923, had developed the first chronograph with an independent pushpiece, making start and return-to-zero functions simpler and more intuitive. By 1934, Breitling had devised a wristwatch with a second return-to-zero pushpiece. This made it possible to measure several successive short times, improving the wristwatch’s functionality for pilots.

Advances like these and Breitling’s consistent focus on the needs of aviators led the Royal Air Force to make Breitling its official supplier in 1936. Innovations continued throu...

Breitling was not the first watchmaker to go after the aviation market. In 1926, Vacheron Constantin gave one of its George V Royal Presentation Aviator’s Chronographs from 1926 to Admiral Byrd to mark his flight that year to the North Pole. In the 1930s, Doxa was one of the leading makers of chronographs, some of which were housed in 14-karat yellow-gold cases. And Doxa continued to make watches for the military throughout World War II, particularly for aviators.

Another aviation player was Longines, which introduced a wrist chronograph for pilots in 1936. When Howard Hughes broke the speed record for a flight around the world in 1938, he was wearing a Longines chronograph.

After World War II, chronographs were the norm for sports watches, even from luxury manufacturers. During the 1950s, Girard-Perregaux produced hard-working chronographs with 30-minute and 12-hour counters along with fancier models such as the Mysterieuse, a minimalist creation whose hour and minute “hands” were fixed on smaller discs that rotated within the wristwatch’s round face.

Mid-level companies were also slugging it out. In the 1960s, Zenith sports models such as the Pilot were designed to compete with the Rolex Explorer, but the biggest news of that decade was the 1969 launch of Zenith’s El Primero chronograph movement.

And then there was Omega, whose Speedmaster chronograph from 1956 was selected a decade later by NASA for all of the space agency’s manned missions. The Speedmaster withstood a grueling battery of tests, including performing at zero gravity, in proximity to magnetic fields, and at temperatures ranging from -18 to +93 degrees Celsius.

The crew of Gemini 3 was the first to wear Speedmaster Professionals, as they were now known. But the watch gained its greatest acclaim on July 21, 1969 when it was strapped to the wrist of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon—according to his watch, the time was 02:56 GMT. Thereafter, the Speedmaster Professional was called the Moon Watch.

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