LOUIS MOINET'S CHRONOGRAPH
The recent discovery of a hitherto unknown timepiece is rewriting the history of watch development. It turned out to be the first ever chronograph, although its maker, Louis Moinet, called it a “compteur de tierces.” According to hallmarks on the dust cover, the chronograph was started in 1815 and completed the following year.
In the 19th century, watchmakers sought to increase the precision with which they could measure time by increasing the frequency of their watches. By 1820 the generally accepted limit was time measurement to the tenth of a second.
Moinet’s compteur de tierces (“thirds timer”) was thus by far the most precise instrument of its period, measuring time six times more closely than the norm. Moinet’s division of time into sixtieths of a second is another historical achievement that places him among the great contributors to modern watchmaking. The chronograph’s balance beats at 216,000 vibrations an hour or at the then unimaginable frequency of 30Hz. To put that into perspective, the usual balance frequency in a modern wristwatch is 28,800 v/h or 4Hz. Louis Moinet is thus the father of high-frequency time measurement, although it was not until exactly a century later that a watch was made to beat his record.
SETTING THE SIGHTS ON THE STARS
Moinet made the timer for an astronomical transit instrument, originally mounted for use at sea, that he had adapted to track the movement of heavenly bodies from the land. According to a letter he wrote in 1823, “I came to Paris in 1815 with the sole purpose of devising and making a compteur de tierces. The difficult and seldom attempted realisation of this instrument of a new construction, has achieved my purpose most satisfactorily.”
Why did Moinet need such high frequency? He was timing the passage of stars, planets and even planetary moons. A frequency of 216,000 v/h imparted 60 vibrations a second, thus dividing the second into sixtieths. He made the compteur initially to set the precise distance between the crosshairs in his telescope, as he describes in his 1848 Traité d’Horlogerie:
“This invention came to me during my observations in the following circumstances. I had acquired a small mobile quadrant by the famous Borda (maker of the entire circle). This instrument, of excellent English manufacture, was balanced on rubies, and by an ingenious system of counterweights was supposed by its maker to be preserved by its own inertia from the motion of the ship, and to provide at sea observations almost as exact as those obtained on land. But the project was not successful."