The Cats and the Clock

by Carlos Perez

April 25, 2001

A clock hangs upon the wall, ticking its measured beat of time. Perhaps it is the sound, or the dancing of the seconds hand which catches the attention of the cat perched nearby. Enigmatic yellow eyes contemplate the mystery momentarily, then his lean, long-limbed tiger-striped body stretches up, up, for a single paw to tap a few times on the glass face as the seconds hand marches on unhindered. Thus eluded the cat loses interest, shortly finding amusement elsewhere. Later another comes — a dark, young, rambunctious cat, still not quite fully grown. Perhaps in imitation, or driven by the same curiosity, he too attempts to capture the skittering seconds hand, extending his white, needle-point claws, which grasp vainly upon smooth glass which repels all intrusion. Observing both of these attempts through
slitted, disinterested eyes is the old tabby, who in his wisdom knows the vanity of their actions. Elsewhere in the house, two other cats play in ignorance even of the clock’s existence.

This too is the story of mankind, held as we are in thrall to time. Most of us march out our lives steadily to the beat of that seconds hand, ever in synch with time. While some are seemingly unaware of its passing, others look upon it with detached disinterest, and yet others with endless fascination. For those of us who are fascinated, we are ever trying to come to grips with this untouchable force. We can watch a seconds hand turn endlessly, see the crest of time as it flows in waves — one second ago gone forever and one second to come suddenly here. In trying to grasp this passing, this endless flow, we have invented “a clock within a clock,” not to stop time, but to catch a glimpse of it. The chronograph, more properly chronoscope, allows us to capture, like the ephemeral last breath of a dying man, a tiny slice of time — perhaps really just a snapshot of the wake of its passing. Yes, they are tools designed to help us to manage and break up time in the pursuit of our day-to-day activities, but there is also deeper symbolism — though perhaps we too prefer to play in ignorance.

Chronographs are wonderful toys of course, which unlike those poor cats allow us to stop and start a seconds hand at whim or need — though of course not to stop time even symbolically. For even as we capture a small record of its passing with the stopping of the chronograph seconds hand, the small subsidiary seconds dial standard on chronograph watches continues to march on heedlessly. The complexity involved in the seemingly simple task of temporarily recording small segments of time is illustrated above: Nouvelle Lemania calibre 2320, which went to the Moon as Omega calibre 321, is shown here as reinterpreted by the house of Patek Philippe, with a new escapement, the polished steel column wheel cap which is a characteristic mark of high-grade chronographs, and various other refinements.

The complex typology of chronographs is one defined by form and function, each function of which can often be achieved through differing means. The sequence of the various operations can be organized by column wheel (Fr. roue colonne) or by cam (Fr. coulisse). Engagement of the chronograph can be accomplished by transfer wheel, tilting pinion, or vertical clutch. And like any other mechanical movement winding can be either manual or automatic. Furthermore, the chronograph works may be integrated onto the top-plate of the base timekeeping movement, or be attached as a separate complication module to the movement’s dial side — the “clock within a clock.” All of these factors may be mixed and matched, which allows for vast diversity in the world of chronograph engineering and design, the basic typology of which follows:

Single Button – The single-button chronograph is the earliest form of the chronograph wristwatch, adapted directly from the late chronograph pocket watch: with subsidiary seconds and minutes register in-line with the crown, and a central chronograph seconds hand. It is in this original chronograph that the column wheel control mechanism originally developed, and it is still the only means by which they may be controlled. A coulisse operates by being pushed back and forth, while a column wheel always turns in one direction, and therefore can be operated by a single button. The limitation inherent in the single-button architecture is that the functions of start-stop-reset must always follow that sequence. The single button can be co-axial with the winding and setting crown (the most desirable type) or independent from the crown. Single-button chronographs remain rare today, as they are an archaic form within the world of mechanical chronographs. They always manually wound.

Dual Button – It is with the dual button chronograph that the chronograph wristwatch reached a more practical, if less elegant, form. Introduced by Breitling in 1934, it allowed the separation of the three functions into two buttons, start-stop and reset. This allows timing to be paused and then resumed without being forced to reset, as with the earlier single-button type. It was also by moving to dual-buttons that allowed the development of a less expensive control mechanism, the coulisse, though top-grade chronograph calibres still employ the rook-like column wheel. In 1936 Universal Geneve further advanced the science of chronometrage by adding a third register below the subsidiary seconds and minutes register to count elapsed hours, now known as the
“Compax” format (named after the first watches to use it). The dual-button type is the standard, and is the most diverse family of chronograph wristwatches, with two or three registers, and manual or automatic winding.

Flyback (Fr. retour-en-vol ) – A specialized class of dual button chronographs developed for an early form of aerial navigation known as “Dead Reckoning.” In a standard dual-button chronograph the chronograph must be stopped before the reset function may be engaged. This requires three separate pushes on two different buttons to begin a new timing event immediately after another: stop-reset-start. The flyback or retour-en-vol (“return-in-flight”) function allows the reset button to reset-start the already engaged chronograph with a single push. Flyback mechanisms are not very complex, but their narrow and now obsolete application makes them relatively rare.

Split-Seconds (Fr. rattrapante) – Of more general use than a
flyback, though much more complex and difficult to implement, the split-seconds chronograph has two co-axial central chronograph seconds hands which allow the measurement of intermediate (or “split”) times while simultaneously measuring overall time. The split-seconds hand is controlled by a third button which stops it independently from the primary chronograph seconds hand. Once the split time is recorded, the third button is pressed again upon which the split-seconds hand catches up to the still running primary seconds hand — thus the term rattrapante (“catching up with”). The mind-boggling cost of split-seconds chronographs is attributed more to the difficult hand-adjustment of the fine mechanism than to mechanical complexity. In its classical form the split seconds chronograph uses two column wheels, but the drive to lower costs has led to the development of examples with one or none, and to the distinct family of Index Mobiles.

Flying-Seconds – An almost extinct chronograph feature is the one-second register, which is to say that a subsidiary dial divides one second, generally according to beat-rate (5 to 8 segments per second), and the “flying” hand rotates once per second. This has recently been a feature of the so-called foudroyante produced by Jaquet SA.

A final element often integral to chronograph usage are the various scales that can be printed on the dial or bezel, to be used in conjunction with the chronograph’s center seconds
hand(s). This includes tachometers for units per hour, telemeters for measuring distance by the speed of sound, pulsometers for measuring heart-rate per minute, decimal, and other specialized scales. The external form of the chronograph wristwatch varies greatly in other ways as well, from fine instruments in gold to rugged ones in steel. Below are a few interesting examples of some archetypal forms:

The regular production successor to their limited edition Pulsometer, Ulysse Nardin’s Monopusher is one of only a handful of single-button chronographs being made today. In terms of size and design it is strictly traditional, with ample space given to its 3-minute tachymetre scale, and the co-axial chronograph button which gives it that final touch of authenticity. Like all such chronographs which preceded it, it has a manually-wound movement with the requisite column wheel. The only non-classical element of calibre UN-38’s design is the use of a tilting pinion for engagement of the chronograph mechanism. Tilting pinions are an old economical solution to chronograph engagement, with larger manufacturing, assembly, and operational tolerances than the other solutions, while still getting acceptable function — especially in mass production. They are frowned upon by cognoscenti not only for being common to economy movements, but for unanswered questions on the relative longevity of the tilting pinion design. This ebauche is thought to be produced exclusively for Ulysse Nardin by Techniques Horlogres

An homage to the military-issue chronographs and time-only watches that preceded the jet age, Blancpain’s Flyback combines elements of vintage style with very modern elements of movement and case design. A part of their 2100 series, it is tested to 100 meters of water-resistance and has screw-down chronograph buttons for maximum resistance to dust and water, and it bears an exclusive version of Frederic Piguet’s celebrated ultrathin automatic chronograph
ebauche, calibre F185, with flyback function. Unlike most integrated chronograph movements which place the chronograph works on the top-plate, the base calibre 1180 actually integrates much of the works, including the column wheel, onto the movement’s

What sets it apart from most of the new proliferation of automatic chronograph movements is the use of a vertical clutch for chronograph engagement, a refinement recently adopted by Rolex for its own in-house chronograph movement. While it is the newest form of mechanical chronograph engagement, vertical clutch coupling was invented in Switzerland in the late 1930s, further developed by Citizen and Seiko in the 1960s and 1970s, and thus is an established if uncommon solution. This means of engagement eliminates the undesirable seconds hand “jump” and the wear of clashing teeth of all but the most finely tuned transfer wheel designs, and is thought to reduce the load of the running chronograph mechanism. Though still less classical in form than a transfer wheel, it has received greater acceptance than the tilting pinion design from connoisseurs.

Our final example is of one of the rarest types of chronograph wristwatch, a split-seconds without other complications. Due to the massive premium of split-seconds over a regular chronographs, they are normally only offered a base for perpetual calendars or as an element of grand complications. Breguet and Blancpain are the only regular production makers of such chronographs with two column wheels — one of which enables the functions of the split-seconds hand. Curiously both lack one much favored design element, a rattrapante button co-axial with the crown. But while the Blancpain is based on the same new Frederic Piguet ebauche as the Flyback previously discussed, this Breguet is based on a antique Lemania design, including traditional transfer wheel chronograph engagement — still the expected standard design for a high-grade mechanical chronograph. The base timekeeping movement is a 12”’ 3/4-plate hand-wound
calibre, the top-plate of which serves as a base for the steel chronograph works. Thus integrated, the movement needs little if any additional
jeweling, unlike modular chronographs which usually double the jewel count.

The world of chronographs is one of diversity, of myriad shapes and forms, and a complete catalogue is far beyond the scope of this small glimpse into that world. While they have long been made obsolete by advances in electronic timing, the mechanical chronograph remains with us as a relatively accessible work of interactive craftsmanship, an interactivity lacking in the astronomic complications, and far out of reach in the astronomically priced striking complications. Like those house-cat’s playing with a wall clock, we too play with the vast and untouchable cosmic clock, though the chronograph lets us catch that skittering seconds hand, even if only for a moment.

Image Credits:

Three Cats (1913) by Mark Franz; scan by Mark Harden

Patek Philippe calibre CH 27-70 Q by Mark Kolitz

Monopusher courtesy of Ulysse Nardin

Blancpain Flyback by Ned Vaughn

Breguet ref. 3947 and Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 829 by Jing H. Goh

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2001

All Rights Reserved