Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles

"Not just a chronograph, Ariel, but a monopusher chronograph!" I've heard phrases such as this over the years in the context of watch brands showing me their new single pusher (monopusher) chronograph watches, and I've never felt comfortable hearing how we should be impressed by one- versus two-pusher chronographs. Why is it, exactly, that brands feel the need to lie to us about how monopusher chronograph performance compares to the more modern two-pusher chronograph complication?

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles

I don't really know the answer to that question. Perhaps some of the people who are telling me this information don't themselves understand that monopusher chronographs are an earlier, more primative form of chronograph compared to a two-pusher chronograph system. It is also possible that because so many chronographs today rely on the popular two-pusher system, they feel it is worth noting their exception.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles
Breitling first monopusher chronograph wrist watch from 1915.

All of this got me thinking about when the two chronograph pusher system started - at least in the scope of wrist watches. The history of the chronograph itself is rather interesting. For the longest time, it was thought that Nicolas Rieussec invented the chronograph in 1821. In France, Rieussec invented a time measuring box that literally wrote on paper in order to help time horse races. In 2013, the horological world needed to re-write history because it was discovered that Rieussec did not invent the chronograph (much to Montblanc's chagrin). Rather, it was the celebrated watch maker Louis Moinet who invented a stopwatch-style pocket watch in 1816 (discussed by me here on Forbes). Louis Moinet's device ironically had a primitive reset function pusher in addition to the start and stop pusher. Nevertheless, this was not combined with a time telling mechanism, and certainly wasn't part of a wrist watch.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles
Breitling first chronograph wrist watch with independent start/stop pushpiece, from 1923

"Chronograph" literally means "time writer" – probably because of Rieussec's invention that literally wrote on paper. Funny enough, in the world of watches, many people with limited timepiece experience mistakenly believe that a "chronograph" is just another name for a watch. That isn't true. A "Chronometer" is a better term for that, even though in the watch world, Chronometer is the term applied to certain watch movements which are certified by COSC for having a requisite level of accuracy. More traditionally, chronometer was used as a term for especially accurate scientific and navigational clocks. But I digress...

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles
Vintage Minerva advertisement showing some chronograph pocket watches

For many years, chronograph complications on pocket watches (and later, wrist watches) used a single operating pusher to perform three tasks. In order for a single pusher to do three things, it merely cycled through starting, stopping, and resetting the chronograph function. That meant that a user could not pause timing something. If they stopped timing an event, then they needed to reset the chronograph before resuming their timing of that event. Thus, you can see that monopusher chronographs are more limited in their functionality than two-pusher chronographs. That is because in the modern standard two-pusher system, one pusher can be used to start and stop the chronograph multiple times, while a separate pusher is used to reset it.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles
In 1913, Longines was the first company to produce a wrist watch chronograph...

In 1913, Longines was the first company to produce a wrist watch chronograph. The topic of the world's first chronograph wrist watch is something we discussed more in our Top 10 Technically Important Mechanical Wrist Watches article here. Soon after, in 1915, Breitling produced their own version of a wrist watch chronograph – does it surprise you that it looked rather similar to the Longines? Most early watches looked similar. Think of how amazing it would have been if the wrist watch chronograph had instead debuted in 1916, exactly 100 years after the invention of the chronograph... that would have been one hell of a press release.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles
...while,in 1934, Breitling invented the first two-pusher wrist watch chronograph.

The reason I brought up Breitling in addition to Longines is because while they didn't invent the first wrist watch chronograph, they did invent the first two-pusher wrist watch chronograph in 1934. That is almost 20 years after they debuted their wrist watch chronograph - I wonder what took so long and why no one else thought of this until then? One issue, of course, had to do with watch makers wanting to put as few holes in a watch case as possible because that is how dust and water can enter. Other than screw-down pushers, there was no real gasket technology available in watches. For this reason, I believe you see many monopusher chronograph pushers integrated into the actual watch crown.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles

Breitling refers to their 1934 innovation as a "second return to zero pushpiece." The idea here is that rather than having a single pusher to start, stop, and then reset the chronograph, two pushers would be used. In this layout, one chronograph pusher is used to start or stop the chronograph, and the other pusher is used to reset the chronograph to the zero position.

Resetting the chronograph with this system can only be done when the chronograph function is stopped. A later innovation known as the "flyback chronograph" added the final level of functionality which allows the user to instantly reset the chronograph while it is in operation (without having to stop it first). Flyback chronographs are particularly useful for those looking to recording events in quick succession. Apparently, it was also Breitling who invented the first flyback chronograph watch in 1923 - but it isn't clear whether or not it was a wrist watch. I don't believe it was. Longines, however, was the first to patent the concept, and they released the first flyback chronograph watch in 1936.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles

I should also note the rattrapante, or "split seconds" chronograph. These are also sometimes called "double chronographs" – for the latter, see the A. Lange & Söhne Double Split pictured above. This somewhat rare and difficult to assemble complication also happens to be of limited use (in my opinion), but it is often associated with some very complicated (and expensive) watches. The split seconds chronograph adds yet another pusher to a case which is meant to control the starting and resetting of a second chronograph seconds hand. At “rest," this additional chronograph hand actually "hides" under the main chronograph seconds hand. When activated, it is able to independently measure up to 60 seconds while the main chronograph is running. Thus, split second chronographs offer users the ability to time events up to 60 seconds while the main chronograph is not disrupted.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles
The first rattrapante chronograph wristwatch from 1923. Watch sold by and image courtesy of: Sotheby's

Apparently, Patek Philippe was the first company to put a rattrapante chronograph into a wrist watch in 1923. However, the split second chronograph as a complication dates back to pocket watches from the 19th century. Perhaps, the most recent innovation in the world of chronographs as related to this discussion is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Lap Timer debuted in 2015. In this watch, Audemars Piguet extended the functionality of a split seconds chronograph concept allowing it to be started, stopped, and reset independently.

Why Monopusher Chronographs Are Primitive & A Brief History Of The Chronograph Watch Complication Feature Articles

This entire article began with the premise that watch consumers should understand the relative pecking order of chronograph complications in wrist watches. I feel that when watch brands attempt to promote monopusher chronographs over other chronographs, they are misleading consumers. Perhaps as a watch lover, you've been privy to these conversations, and perhaps you have not. While monopusher chronographs may have an elegance and sense of longer history to them, they are more basic and less functional chronograph complications as compared to others - namely, the now standard two-pusher chronograph. Knowledge such as this helps you be a better watch customer and helps clear up some of the smoke and mirror tactics some luxury watch brands use in the context of promoting some of their products.

  • What no mention of the JLC AMVOX 7 where the whole case is a pusher?
    http://www.ablogtowatch.com/jaeger-lecoultre-amvox-7-aston-martin-watch-review/

  • iamcalledryan

    I must admit, I never felt that brands are trying to sell MP’s as anything other than an homage to the past. I love the aesthetic of a MP but if I was buying one on performance and grace it would have to be a vertical clutch column wheel actuated chrono!

    • speedy

      Agreed. And monopushers are a way to issue something different. When you sell a monopusher chronograph, chances are that you did a little more than just buying an off-the-shelf ETA 7750 or Sellita equivalent… which, in a way, makes a monopusher more difficult to build than a 2-pushers chronograph.

  • BIG CHRONO

    I’m expecting the next chrono breakthrough to be the telekinetic model, in which users wield mind over matter to start/stop/split/foudroyante/return to zero, etc.

    • I_G

      Will be called the “Jedi Chrono”.

      • BIG CHRONO

        Just ensure it is not a mono (nucleosis) pusher.

  • SuperStrapper

    I no fan of monopusher chronographs, and I always feel like modern watches that adopt the format are a letdown.

  • Steve Bowden

    Hi I have a noob watch question. These early mono-pushers? i don’t see a ‘pusher’ to push? Was the crown doing double duty as a pusher? That sounds like a bad idea.

    • iamcalledryan

      With most the crown surrounds the pusher. So they operate independently, but are in the same spot. Some others just have a simple single-pusher at 2 o’clock or elsewhere.

      • Steve Bowden

        Thanks, that was bugging me. good to know.

  • DanW94

    Ariel, nice article, I enjoyed the historical aspect. It seems the choice between the two button pusher or the monopusher comes down to your own aesthetic preference and not necessarily performance, seeing that most people use them as a novelty or the timing of mundane things. (If I’m off base on that one, I’d be curious to know what other people use their chronographs for)
    Oh, and I love the picture of that menacing looking watchmaker in the opening photo of the article. (Do you know who it actually is?) He looks like someone just stole his chronograph.

  • Dartagnan

    Although the monopusher doesn’t offer the feature of additive timing which is possible with two push-buttons, I don’t agree that the monopusher is inferior. Personal taste and style are factors here and as far as simplicity is concerned, the monopusher is superior. The start/stop and separate reset setup is also prone to failure in some timepieces where it is possible to foul up the works by pressing the reset button during a timing interval (before hitting stop). The monopusher, because of its successive modal setup ameliorates this concern and if speed and ease of use are your thing, the monopusher is faster to operate than the two-button chronograph setup.

    • egznyc

      I’m thinking while you’re right about style and performance, functionality is another matter. And as for speedy resets, I have to think it’s like in drumming – more fingers means more speed. Although most of us probably don’t need that.

  • spiceballs

    Very interesting article Ariel, thank you. Never been a fan of chronographs as I have never really had the need and when I did want to time something reliably and accurately (swimming laps, yacht race start countdown, etc) I used my robust waterproof accurate digital Casio. That said just as a watch, I do like the Longines which has that “classique” look.

    • egznyc

      Which Longines are you into? Is it the one with the pulsometer? A very attractive piece.

      • spiceballs

        That’s the one :-).

  • Less flexible than chronographs with a separate reset function? Yes. Inferior? No.

    It really bothers me how some fine watches look like they’re vacationing at Disney World and wear Mickey Mouse ears. Rarely have I seen the pushers neatly integrated in the overall design. Most monopushers, on the other hand, especially those whose pusher is integrated into the crown, have a very sleek design that I really dig. Unfortunately, they’re rare, even with some revival of late.

    So, instead of passing judgment, it would be better to welcome a variation of a popular complication in dire need of creativity.

    • Ariel Adams

      Thanks for the comment. There are a lot of monopusher chronographs that I do like and getting them for “nostalgia purposes” is sound and honorable. With that said I can’t stand behind watch brands routinely charging more for this complication passing it off as being somehow more complicated than more modern chronographs. That, if anything, is my point.

      • Then direct your angst at the subject of the misrepresentation, not at its object. In spite of your statement above, this article reads like a diatribe against mono pushers. Mono pushers are fine chronographs just like dual pushers are, though both serve distinct customers.

        • smoothsweeper

          The article simply explained that monos were objectively less functional and complex than the now standard dual pusher. I didn’t realize this and I’m glad to know it now.

  • resonator resonator

    I got to play with the Longines pictured, though the dial was a different variant. I really enjoyed the mono-pusher system on it. It was a first for me, and now I have a slight bug for one.

    • egznyc

      Any idea what movement is being used in these Longines monopushers? Is it just s variant of the Valjieux 7750, designed to start stop then reset in that order, from the touch of a single button?

        • egznyc

          Thanks! I remember reading that review and liking it, too. Still surprised the reviewer described that piece as “svelte,” and fitting under a shirt cuff easily. Now that’s a chrono I could love for many activities (but apparently not swimming)!

      • resonator resonator

        All I know is what I read here and there, which is it’s an exclusive ETA, designated as the L788.2, and is based on the ETA A08.261 column wheel chronograph. I think. The pusher had a memorably great click to it. Love that watch.

        • egznyc

          Your photo of it looks great! I thought I liked it with the white dial but the black with gold hands looks terrific! (Though I do like the other’s red “12”). Thanks for sharing. Now I think the large pusher/crown might get to be a nuisance for daily wear …

          • resonator resonator

            I thought so too, but wore it for about five hours while I was selecting my watch, and it never once bothered me. In fact, the finishing on it is very very fine and it felt more like a polished ball of glass rubbing me every so often. Barely noticed it, but it did not bother. And trust me, I’m very sensitive when it comes to watch straps, lugs, browns, cases, buckles, etc.

  • egznyc

    Interesting article. I hope there is an upcoming one on some of the main chrono variants in terms of common movement designs, such as column wheel, cam, etc. I’ve seen plenty of discussion around this topic but not sure it’s been the subject of an entire article.

  • Andrew Hughes

    Holy cow… So that is what a rattrapante chronograph is? You just answered a question that I have had for over a year about a Swiss Army Hunter Mach 2 watch that is actually labeled a “Fly-Back” chronograph right on the dial, however, it has the 2nd striped hand that hides under the main chrono hand making it a rattrapante. The pusher on the top left activates the hidden hand.

    I can only assume the “Fly-Back” name is a cute bit of marketing speak. Love the watch though…

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  • ZL

    Considering that the standard 2-pusher chronograph is so common, it makes sense to me for brands to market a monopusher as, well, exotic and a bit special. Perhaps it’s not that much of a stretch to create a monopusher movement, but they are a novelty in a sea of 7750s, and they probably have to be specially developed. If they are being sold as “better” in some way, of course, you should ask why. But since all (mechanical) watches are basically obsolete (but fascinating) novelties anyway, it just seems like a matter of degrees between a monopusher and a “regular” chronograph. Also, it is nice to see what modern brands can do with this old concept. Nothing wrong with some variety in our chronographs.

  • The monopusher is the romantic’s chronograph, which explains the marketing and price premium.

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  • Richard

    hmm… I think you are barking up the wrong tree here – people don’t buy mono-pushers because they are ‘better’ or ‘more accurate’ than a multi buttoned one – at the end of the day a £50 digital quartz chronograph will perform more than adequately for most mortal requirements.

    The reason why people buy mono pushers is because they represent an interesting horological complication. Mono pushers will always appeal to the mechanically minded horologically interested watch collector over the one who collects watches for their design or look. I have two of the cheaper ones – A Longlines and a Chris Ward Harrison and I love them both and for the price of the Ward I could have bought a Pelagos – but I already have a stable of diving watches and I wanted a machine which someone had put together by hand. You certainly don’t wear these watches to impress people – they are purely a selfish pleasure.