Random Neat Historical Fact: Pay Phones and Chronographs Edition

It always amazes me how technologies intermingle with one another. Consider the average automobile, which almost always have a cigarette lighter. This simple almost universal inclusion actually says a lot about the popularity of cigarettes in our society (at least the historical popularity). Most of these intermingling technologies go unnoticed by us because they’re just so common.

One of those technological minglings that I never noticed, even though I’m a bit of a horological nerd, specific markings on old chronographs. Oftentimes the minute subdail for the chronograph function will emphasize the markers for three, six, and nine. I always assumed this was merely an aesthetic thing and never questioned it further but as it turns out there was a functional reason for this:

It all comes down to the telephone. According to a watchmaker and enthusiast, I was informed that back in the 40s, 50s and early 60s when these watches were being produced, people used payphones regurarly. Cell phones obviously didn’t exist and many people didn’t have landline in their home yet. When using a payphone at the time, the money you put in got you three minutes of talk time, and you were cut off abruptly when your time was up.

The lines on the chronograph simply help you keep track of your telephone call. You’d start the chronograph, put in your money, and easily be able to know when to put more money in or to finish your conversation. Most calls were likely under 10 minutes, which is why only the first three-minute markers look like this.

I would have never guess that. After all pay phones were already in rare use when I was a kid. This makes me wonder if the next generation of children, who will likely have much more limited exposure to cigarettes, will be confused about what the removable button in the car that gets hot when pressed is for.