The stopwatch: 200 years old and still ticking

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The stopwatch turns 200: When the compteur de tierces surfaced in 2012, it was like stumbling across an iPhone from 1975 in a junk shop(Credit: Louis Moinet Company)

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Time stopped 200 years ago … then it was restarted, stopped again, and reset. No, this isn't some obscure retrospective application of relativity, we're talking about the invention of the stopwatch. In 1816 Louis Moinet created a device known as the compteur de tierces – a fascinating tale in itself that only came to light a few years ago – and the era in which intervals of time could be accurately measured began. The advent of these little second counters has not only had a profound impact on our daily lives, but changed our very definition of time. Let's take a look back at how it all started.

Put simply, a stopwatch is a portable timepiece that counts seconds or fractions of seconds so they can be recorded accurately. That's why stopwatches are regarded as a form of chronograph – from the Greek words "chronos" (time) and "graph" (writing) – and why we refer to watches that include complications like stopwatches, as chronographs.

What could be seen as the first prototype of the stopwatch was made for English physician Sir John Floyer by master horologist Samuel Watson in 1690. This "physician's pulse watch" had a second hand and a lever that when pressed stopped the whole movement. This way, a doctor could accurately measure a pulse rate. Some later versions could record time down to 1/5th of a second, but they couldn't be reset and were regarded as notoriously imprecise, hard to interpret and unreliable.

Stopwatches are everywhere in the modern world – and not just on digital watches and smartphone apps. Aviators, for example, wouldn't be caught dead without them as a back up against equipment failures and astronauts most especially wouldn't. In fact, the crew of Apollo 13 came home alive thanks to the stopwatch.

History is rewritten

So, where did the stopwatch that we know today with its distinct design and precision come from? Until a few years ago, the who, what, when, and where was pretty much settled. The main claimant to the title of inventor was Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec of France, who 1821 created a stopwatch for King Louis XVIII. His majesty was keen on horse racing and wanted a timepiece that could record how long a race took to run, so Rieussec came up with his "chronograph," which when activated caused a pen nib to deposit ink on a strip of paper around the rim of the dial at intervals down to a tenth of a second.

Rieussec's chronograph of 1821(Credit: Sotheby's)

Rieussec's chronograph worked well enough that at the very least he was the first to make a commercially available stopwatch. There were two or three contemporary rivals to his claim of originator, but Rieussec was the scholar's favorite – that it is, until a previously unknown timepiece came up for auction by Christie's at Geneva's Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in May 2012. History was about to be rewritten.

The timepiece was a large, silver "compteur de tierces" or "counter of thirds" made by one Louis Moinet of Paris, who signed the device, and bearing hallmarks that dated it from 1816. The estimated price was CHF 3,000 to CHF 5,000 (US$3,300 to US$5,400), but to the surprise of the auction house, Jean-Marie Schaller, the CEO of the modern Moinet watch company, bought it for CHF 62,500 (US$67,443).

Even at an over 10,000 percent markup this turned out to be a steal, because finding the compteur was like stumbling across an iPhone from 1975 in a junk shop. Not only was the compteur a good five years older than Rieussec's chronograph, but it was much more advanced. Where the chronograph looked like a carriage clock, the compteur looked like a pocket watch and it had features that wouldn't be reinvented for decades or even a full century later.

Thus the Louis Moinet chronograph can lay claim to being the first stopwatch, and this year is its 200th anniversary.

Louis Moinet

One reason why the compteur de tierces was unknown until 2012 is that its creator was a bit of an absent-minded professor. Born in 1768, Louis Moinet came from a well-off family in Bourges, France. Though he gained a reputation as a sculptor and painter and rose to the position of Professor of Fine Arts at the Louvre, his true passion was watchmaking,

Moinet in later years(Credit: Louis Moinet Company)

Moinet worked with many famous Swiss watchmakers of the time and developed a number of timepieces for maritime and astronomical work. In addition, he made clocks for such luminaries of the day as Napoleon Bonaparte, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, King George IV of England, King of Naples Marshal Murat, and France's Marshal Ney. Then in 1848, he capped this off with his book, Traité d'Horlogerie, which is still regarded as one of the great works on horology.

The frustrating thing is that when Moinet died at the age of 85, he never bothered to write much about his compteur de tierces, which he developed starting in 1815 as an instrument for measuring astronomical events. Having built something so advanced and simply setting it aside is a bit like Sir Isaac Newton inventing calculus while at university and only casually revealing the fact when Gottfried Leibniz reinvented it years later.

The compteur de tierces

Made in gilt and frosted brass, even from a simple craft point of view, Moinet's compteur is a masterpiece. The 13-jewel barrel and fusee movement is set on full plates between four pillars and uses a ruby and steel cylinder escapement with a foliot balance and platinum adjustment weights. Friction is kept down with six oiled ruby endstones and the whole thing fits in a silver case measuring 57.7 mm (2.3 in) wide with a hinged dust cover.

None of this however, is the clever bit. On examination, it turned out that the compteur runs at 216,000 vibrations an hour or 30 Hz. In comparison, a modern mechanical wristwatch manages 28,800 vibrations an hour or 4 Hz. This gives the compteur the ability to time intervals of 1/60th of a second – six times better than Rieussec's chronograph – and a high-frequency time measurement that wouldn't be matched until TAG Huer came out with the Micrograph in 1916, which could manage 1/100th of a second.

Another remarkable thing about the compteur is that because it was made to measure astronomical events, such as the time it took a star to pass across a telescope's field of view or a moon of jupiter to pass behind the planet, it needed a power reserve of over 30 hours and still had to maintain precision and accuracy.

The layout of the compteur also makes one suspect it ended up in 1816 via a time machine. Instead of inking paper, it has a silvered and frosted metal dial dominated by a large fraction-second hand like later stopwatches, and three subdials for marking hours, minutes, and whole seconds

Along with this, the stopwatch has a button at 12 o'clock to start and stop it, plus an 11 o'clock button to instantly reset the dials. This is a feature common to modern stopwatches and one not thought to be invented until 1862 by Adolphe Nicole.

The chronograph goes mainstream

Since Moinet the familiar form of the mechanical stopwatch has reinvented itself several times, before almost vanishing into the digital age. By the 1870s, mechanical stopwatches were in general use at race tracks, sporting events, and especially by artillery officers to gauge the fall of shot. Because merging the stopwatch with other watch movements was so difficult, it wasn't until 1913 that the Longines company produced the first wrist chronograph, and until 1969 that the first automatic chronograph was developed independently by Zenith, Seiko, and a consortium of Hamilton, Buren, Breitling, and Heuer.

Longines 13.33Z wrist chronograph was released in 1913(Credit: Longines)

Then Accusplit produced the first digital stopwatch in 1972 and the days of the mechanical chronograph as anything other than a luxury timepiece were numbered.

Meanwhile, the chronograph with its stopwatch complication became standard wear for scuba divers, aviators, and astronauts – which turned out to be a lucky thing in 1970 when the crew of the stricken Apollo 13 mission had to use an Omega Speedmaster to time a 14-second course correction to safely return to Earth.

US Astronaut Jack Swigert with Omega Speedmaster prior to the Apollo 13 launch.(Credit: NASA)

But it isn't just aviators and astronauts who use stopwatches today. They're used in hospitals for recording heart beats, in sports, by armies to control artillery and coordinate operations, submarine captains for navigation and torpedo firing, divers to avoid the bends, television producers to time program segments, IT technicians to restart computers, efficiency experts to make jobs run smoothly, cooks to boil eggs, and fast food restaurants for pretty much everything.

Redefining time

The impact of the stopwatch goes well beyond deciding who takes home the gold in the 100 meter sprint. Before the mechanical clock was invented, the concept of time was interwoven with the cycles of the natural world and changed as they changed.

For example, before the Clock of Dondi and similar mechanical clocks were invented in the 14th century, hours and days were very different things than we think of them today. A day was the time between the middle of one night and the next, and noon was when the sun reached its zenith, but everything else was regarded as taking-as-long-as-it takes.

The Astrarium of Giovanni Dondi dell'Orologio

An hour, if it was used at all, was 1/12th of the time between sunrise and sunset. Needless to say, that interval changes with the seasons and so summer hours were much longer than winter hours. That meant that the pace of life was much more flexible, with few appointments outside of noon that were other than somethingish. As for the minute, that didn't even exist as a measurement of time.

With the clock, hours soon became 1/24th of a day and always the same length. Time was now something that could be marked with rigid accuracy and became more so as clocks became more sophisticated. Lives could now be more regulated and regimented and punching the clock became both a routine and a secret wish.

With the stopwatch, time took on another meaning again. Before, time was marked. In other words, it was something that flowed independent of mankind like the weather or a river and its progress could only be followed by noting the course of the sun or the hands on a clock. The stopwatch made time something to be measured. The chronograph could be started, stopped, reset, made to pause, restarted, and sliced up into laps. Essentially, time could be captured and stored.

This idea was a boon to scientists, who had been toying with the concept ever since Galileo tried to time experiments with his pulse or by using strings of different tensions in the path of rolling balls. Astronomers used pendulums to study the heavens and navigators relied on chronometers that carried the time in Greenwich like a captive genie all over the world to calculate longitude.

The stopwatch took these developments and made time itself an abstraction as it chopped the second into smaller and smaller intervals until the second is now defined as 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation of a cesium atom – a long way from Galileo's heartbeat.

Today, this abstraction is no longer a laboratory curiosity, but a major part of our everyday lives. We tell time by means of minute vibrations of quartz crystals. Our computers depend on carefully controlled internal clocks that constantly synchronize with others over the internet. Our GPS systems are merely extremely sophisticated timers of satellite radio signals.

From televisions to air traffic control systems to car engines to our daily reminders chirping on our phones (and the phones themselves), we live in a stopwatch age where constantly measured, trimmed, stored and compared intervals of time keep society moving, our technology functioning, and us scurrying along to our next appointments.

Perhaps that's why Moinet let his revolutionary stopwatch fall into obscurity. Maybe he didn't care about the credit. Or maybe he didn't want the blame.

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