It’s not everyday that a watch comes along that totally rewrites the history of watchmaking as we know it. Today on The Horophile, I’m offering you a hands-on look at the oldest chronograph ever made, the Louis Moinet Compteur de Tierces.


While Louis Moinet might not be the most revered of watchmakers from the 18th and 19th century, he was responsible for many developments and inventions in watchmaking. Perhaps his greatest invention however was only attributed to him recently. As of March 2013, Louis Moinet can be called the inventor of the chronograph.


Understanding the etymology of the word chronograph helps in uncovering the roots of what is probably the most popular complication in modern watches. Up until recently, it was believed that French watchmaker Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec created the first-ever chronograph in 1821. Invented to time horseraces, the instrument dropped spots of ink onto an enamel dial to mark the elapsed time. Hence chronos means time, and graph writing. Essentially, it was a watch that wrote or marked elapsed time, and the term has stuck ever since. Technically, the chronograph we know should be called a chronoscope.

Almost entirely lost in the annals of watchmaking history save for Louis Moinet’s own Traité d’Horlogerie encyclopedic work, Louis Moinet had in fact invented the first chronograph several years before Rieussec; one that resembled the modern chronograph we know today much more closely. Except of course, the word chronograph (or more accurately chronoscope) hadn’t been conjured yet.


With the objective of creating an instrument to use for astronomical observation and calculation, Louis Moinet began working on his Compteur de Tierces (literally “counter of thirds”, a term that was used to denote one sixtieth of a second age in a pre-decimal age) in 1815 and completed it around a year later in 1816.

Making a full revolution every second with 60 intervals, the Compteur de Tierces was not only the chronograph ever made, but the first mechanical high-frequency movement, with the chronograph running at a whopping speed of 30 Hz (216,000 vph); totally unheard of at the time and a rare wonder to behold even in watches of our era.



Operating much like a modern chronograph, the Compteur de Tierces features two pushers, meaning it the first watch with a zero-reset mechanism, which was actually attributed to Adolphe Nicole in 1862 with a patent to his name. Clearly, Louis Mointet was too modest a man.



The Compteur de Tierces isn’t a watch per se, since it doesn’t actually display the current passing time. A pure astronomical calculator, it displays a 60th of a second from the large central hand, as well as elapsed seconds and minutes on offset sub-dials at 1 o’clock and 11 o’clock, respectively. Note that the elapsed hours hand makes one full rotation every 24 hours, given the length of astronomical events and calculations. Because of this, the watch had to have a power reserve of at least 24 hours. It can actually run for closer to 30 hours.




Perhaps the best part of the story is how the watch resurfaced. Besides being mentioned in some of Louis Moinet’s writing, nobody really knew what happened to the fabled invention or if it ever even existed. Think about it, a 30Hz pocket-watch from 1816 sounds a bit like horological science fiction. Having been in the hands of a Northern European noble family and untouched for over 150 years, the Compteur de Tierces made a humble appearance during a Christie’s auction in Geneva back in 2012. Going relatively unnoticed among other highly sough-after historical pieces from the likes of Breguet, the unnamed Louis Moinet pocket watch went to the highest bidder Mr Jean-Marie Schaller, CEO and “reviver” of Louis Moinet. It wasn’t until after acquiring it and restoring it that Schaller and his team were able to establish that the pocket watch was in fact the impossibly advanced Compteur de Tierces Louis Moinet had written about in his  “Traité d’Horlogerie”.


And because I love saving the best for last, here’s a video of the Compteur de Tierces in action. Seeing truly is believing:

With the Compteur de Tierces, Louis Moinet has not only rewritten the history of watchmaking, but also given the Louis Moinet a sense of pride and glory.


Want to learn more about the Louis Moinet’s Compteur de Tierces?  Have a look at Watchonista’s dedicated page here:

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