What is a Chronograph?

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  • Originally Written By: John Kinsellagh
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2019
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A chronograph is a sort of timepiece, most commonly a watch, that is capable of measuring both standard 12-hour time and time in more discreet intervals. It’s often easiest to think about this sort of device as a clock and a stopwatch in one, though many models are much more complex than just this. Some of the most basic models are sold as wristwatches, and tend to be popular among people who like to measure time simultaneously in different intervals. Watches in this class also tend to have a somewhat sophisticated look. These sorts of devices have many important roles beyond mere aesthetics and convenience, though; they were originally designed for use in astronomy, and also have applications in deep sea diving, piloting of both boats and aircraft, and competitive sports like car racing that require precisely timed intervals. It is important to distinguish this sort of clock from a chronometer, which is a timepiece that is officially certified for its high degree of accuracy.

Display Variables

Most of these sorts of timepieces look something like a “watch within a watch.” The main piece typically resembles a standard clock face, which has imbedded smaller clocks or timers set at intervals in the center or around the sides. A clock just needs one of these smaller dials to qualify as a chronograph, though it’s not uncommon to find three or more, depending on the activity for which it was designed.


The primary function of this sort of clock is typically to indicate the current time; this is performed by traditional hour and minute hands. Some are stand-alone mechanical timepieces with independently operated mechanisms for measuring each discrete unit. The operation of the elapsed timer doesn’t usually interfere with the running of the 12-hour time-keeping function. Most modern versions are wristwatches that are capable of measuring elapsed seconds, minutes, and hours.

Some wristwatch models are digital, while others combine mechanical movements with digital displays. Others show both 12-hour timekeeping as well as the elapsed time digitally, often in small, rectangular, liquid crystal display windows. The main idea is to allow the user to see several different timing increments simultaneously, or to toggle between them.

Mechanisms Involved

This sort of timepiece can be very complex from a mechanical perspective, and each usually involves a lot of moving parts that must work together precisely and accurately. Early models were all built by hand, and many still are; modern manufacturers often take advantage of some more mechanized processes to make the job more efficient, though.

Some must be wound, but most versions on the market today rely on a mechanical or battery-induced movement for the different dials. Mechanically powered devices have separate rotary sub-dials, each with a single hand that indicates either the hour, minute, or seconds of elapsed time. As soon as the seconds sub-dial reaches the one-minute mark, the other minute sub-dial advances forward in single minute increments. When the minute sub-dial reaches 60 accumulated minutes, the hour sub-dial advances to the one hour elapsed position.

Basics of Use

Modern timepieces often have buttons that protrude from the watch case that are used to trigger the various elapsed time functions. Usually, one button activates the elapsed timer function, while another stops it so that an elapsed time can be measured on the sub-dials. Pushing the buttons generally resets all the hands on each of the sub-dials back to the initial starting position.

The degree of accuracy of the elapsed time readout on a mechanical chronograph is determined, in part, by the gradations or number of incremental units marked on each of these sub-dials. Some digital models may offer a more precise, more readable measurement of elapsed time because certain types may be capable of recording, as well as displaying, time in fractions of a second.

Main Applications

Many of these sorts of timepieces are sold as accessories, and people often consider them to be more fashionable or sophisticated than more standard 12-hour watches. They also have a number of more serious uses, though. The ability to track different time intervals is important to people who chart moon phases and astrological movements, for instance, and in fact this is why the device was designed. A watch of this type can also be beneficial for anyone who regularly times things at fixed intervals. Chefs, medical professionals, and oceanographers are all examples.


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Post 2

@donna61--Yes, a chronograph watch is a watch that has both time keeping and stop watch capabilities. You can find some that are water proof at a reliable jewelers. I bought one not to long ago that was supposed to be water proof and it was not, so I would shop around and make sure it comes with some kind of warranty if you get it wet and then the stop watch stops working.

Post 1

Can the watches that use the chronograph system be water proof? I would like to purchase my husband a watch, but I need it to be water proof. Also, this sounds to me like it is the portion of a watch that is the stop watch, is this correct?

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