Bulova Accutron: the tuning fork revolution
In 1960, Bulova revolutionized traditional watchmaking with the introduction of the ACCUTRON. Here is the fascinating history of a choice watch that marked watchmaking history. Collectors, take note.
In 1950, long before the arrival of quartz watches, whose precision led to their supplanting mechanical pieces, Bulova, an American watch brand, worked on a technology that increased watches’ autonomy and precision; the two weak spots of mechanical watches at the time.
Lunar adventure for a transistor caliber
ACCUTRON stands for “ACCUracy through ElecTRONic”. The world’s first electronic watch functions with a tuning fork; a small fork-shaped piece that until then had only been used in music. Engineer Max Hetzel developed its transistor movement, which was able to achieve an unprecedented precision of a minute per month. This model brought fame and success to Bulova and the piece was even worn by American astronauts when they travelled to the Moon.
"Bulova Accutron, first tuning fork electronic watch"
Bulova: innovation it is!
Bulova was founded in 1875 by Joseph Bulova (1851-1936), a Czech expat who arrived in New York at the age of nine. The brand was soon famous for its high quality products, both in terms of aesthetics and technicality. In 1912, it opened a production unit in Bienne, Switzerland, for mass watch production, an original approach at the time. From then on, the brand continued to bring about watchmaking innovations. In 1920, it built an observatory on the roof of a skyscraper to make calculations that allowed it to determine universal time precisely. In 1928, it introduced the first clock radio. In 1923, it was renamed Bulova Watch Company, and became a precursor in communications. It was thus the first brand to have a radio ad in 1923, with the slogan: “It’s 8am, Bulova Time”, and to later have a television ad, in 1941. These ads made the brand very popular among American consumers.
In 2008, Citizen, a Japanese group, took over Bulova after the group Loews Corporation group had managed it since 1979. Today, Bulova owns several brands to satisfy the needs of a wider range of clients. These include “Bulova”, “Caravelle”, “Wittnauer” and the heir “Accutron”.
In 2010, the brand introduced Precisionist, a quartz movement with a precision of +/- 10 seconds per year and which stands out thanks to a seconds hand that works continuously, as mechanical watches do.
1952 – 1960: research and development
Bulova created the first tuning fork wristwatch in the 1960s, yet the very first mechanical clock with a tuning fork was created in 1856 by Louis F. Breguet, the grandson of the famous Abraham-Louis Breguet who invented the Tourbillon (filed for patent on October 26, 1856).
The history of the Accutron began in 1952 when the Elgin Watch Company released the first electrical watch (Elgin Grade 725). An electrical watch is a mechanical watch with a movement that functions through the energy of a 1.35-V battery. While this source of energy allows for greater autonomy, it doesn’t provide any improvements in precision compared to classical mechanical watches.
Bulova then decided to take matters into its own hands and entrusted the management of the “Accutron” project to Max Hetzel, a Swiss engineer recruited in Bienne in 1950. The project consisted of creating an electronic watch that had better precision than electronic or mechanical watches.
Max Hetzel thought that adding a transistor to the movement would help improve the watch’s precision. In an endeavor to improve the precision even more, he replaced the balance with a tuning fork, which is a small metallic piece made of two parallel arms soldered in a U-shape and extended by a stem. The tuning fork was placed between two transistors and it oscillated at 360 Hz, which was a higher frequency than that of a classical balance. Its mechanical caliber provided uneven precision: two seconds per day or one minute per month. Incredible! It divided each second into a hundred equal parts.
On June 19, 1953, a patent was registered under number 312290. The first prototype became operational in 1954. Max Hetzel developed seven other prototypes. In 1959, William O. Bennett, an American engineer working for Bulova, developed the Caliber 214, the first ever tuning fork movement.
1960 – 1977: commercial success before quartz watches
The revolutionary Accutron was officially introduced on October 10, 1960 by Bulova’s president, General Omar N. Bradley, ex-chief of staff of General Eisenhower.
The first exhibition models that were delivered to retailers were named “Spaceview” as they did not feature dials, hence revealing the details of the tuning fork movement. They started being sold in 1961. Their advertising campaign at the time praised its 99.9977% precision.
The Accutron was released in several versions with steel, gold-plated or gold cases. However, today’s most sought after version by collectors is the Spaceview.
Later modifications to the Caliber 214 included date, calendar and GMT time functions. Thanks to this revolutionary technology, Bulova collaborated with NASA on the ambitious spatial American programme that aimed to supply Accutrons from 1958 to the Vanguard project, which consisted of sending a satellite to space. While the Omega Speedmaster was the chosen piece to travel to space, the Bulova Accutron were the dashboard clocks of 46 spatial missions, including the Apollo programme. Incidentally, one Accutron piece remains in the lunar vehicle that the Apollo 11 crew abandoned in the Sea of Tranquility in 1969.
Some key dates
In 1962, the Accutron became the first certified watch for American railroads staff.
With its precision, trains could be punctual and, most importantly, avoid collisions that were due to late arrivals or departures. Seventy-five other railroad companies across the world also adopted the Accutron technology. A year later, in 1963, astronaut Gordon Cooper was victim of an electric incident in his capsule during a mission around the Earth (Faith 7 project). He used the chronometer function of his Accutron Astronaut to time the restarting of the engines and was able to return to Earth. The watch, we could say, saved his life. In 1964, American president Lynden Johnson gave an Accutron as an official State gift to personalities from across the world. Accutron clocks equipped the presidential Air Force One plane as well as the American army’s aircrafts and ships.
However, the appearance and subsequent commercial success of quartz watches in 1969, made the tuning fork technology retreat into the shadows. To bounce back, Bulova released an Accutron collection with quartz movements in 1976. One year later, the tuning fork Accutron production was stopped once and for all after more than 5 million pieces were sold. That year marked also the end of Bulova’s golden age.
Bulova Accutron Ad
Concerning the functioning of the tuning fork, it gets its energy from a battery, it oscillates at 360 hertz and it is electronically stabilized by an electromagnetic field that makes a very particular sound produced by two coils. The slight humming is representative of Accutron pieces. The second hand also moves continuously, just like in mechanical watches.
Tuning fork calibers
The Accutron technology was developed in many calibers. Firstly, in the Caliber 214, which was found in the first Accutron pieces, including the Spaceview. The caliber was set by a system placed on the watch’s back. In 1972, the brand stopped its production, except for the Spaceview and the watches for the American railroads.
The caliber 218, introduced in 1965, was thinner than the 214 (4.4 mm vs 5.5 mm). It displayed new functions such as the date (2181), the date and day (2182 or 218D) and a second time zone (2185). It was equipped with a crown at 4 o’clock or two crowns at 2 and 4 o’clock.
The 218 was also manufactured by licensed watchmaking companies, such as Universal (caliber 52) or Omega (Speedsonic). With respect to caliber 219, it was a lower-cost version of the caliber 218 whose production started in1972 in order to compete with low-price quartz watches. It featured plastic components and just one transistor.
The calibers 230 and 221 were smaller than the 218. They were produced from 1972 and 1973 respectively and were used in ladies watches.
The Accutron Spaceview was the first model to be equipped with the tuning fork movement. It is the most emblematic representative of the Accutron technology and is the dream of many collectors. It stood out thanks to its lack of dial, which revealed each component of the revolutionary caliber 214. Bulova commercialized more classical versions with dials in the 1960s. The Spaceview was such a hit that either independent watchmakers or the brand itself even adapted some Accutron versions with dial in order to meet all requirements.
The Spaceview had a 35-mm case – as opposed to the current standard of 42/44 mm – and was produced in steel, gold-plated steel or gold. The watch does not feature a crown.
Bulova deliberately did this to show that the Accutron had such precision that it did not need to be set. In fact, the time setting was relegated to the back of the case and was used through a knurling-roller placed to the left of the battery. The year the model was produced is engraved on the back. It consists of a number and a letter: ‘M’ for the 1960s and ‘N’ for the 1970s (for example, M5 meant 1965). It came with a leather strap and pin buckle stamped with the brand’s logo.
The Accutron Astronaut was the second Accutron model. It was as appreciated as the first one, particularly among US Air Force pilots as it featured a second time zone indicated by an additional hand that was associated with a turning bezel graduated on 24 hours. This model featured a classical crown at 4 o’clock and was engraved with a tuning fork. The Astronaut was first developed for NASA’s spatial programme. It was the only model equipped with the caliber 214HN. The Astronaut Mark II model featured the caliber 2185 with a quick time setting that did not need for the minutes or seconds to be touched.
The 21st century Accutron
Even after it stopping the production of its revolutionary model in 1977, Bulova still benefits from the success it obtained. Today, the name evokes a collection of mechanical and quartz watches without tuning forks. In 2007, the Accutron Astronaut was reinterpreted in 1,000 pieces that were equipped with an ETA mechanical movement. The back was engraved with the signature of the American astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a Bulova ambassador who often testified to the fact that the Accutron played a determining role in the success of the lunar mission. In 2008, after Citizen took over, the name Accutron was associated with a collection of quartz and mechanical watches. At that point, the tuning fork technique had been abandoned for good.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Accutron in 2010, Bulova produced a 1,000 limited and numbered range of the Spaceview 2014. It was the exact replica of the 1960 model; it did not have a dial, and was specially equipped with a tuning fork movement such as the caliber 214. Even though they cost $5,000 each, they were all sold before even going into production.
Bulova introduced the Accutron II at BaselWorld 2014. It was a revival vintage version that was inspired by the original Accutron.
Its 40-mm case is available in polished steel or yellow or pink gold-plated and comes with a brown, black or white strap, or a black PVD-treated steel with a black PVD-coated steel strap. It also does not feature a dial, just like the original. The flange supports the indexes and the new stylized logo of the brand. The luminescent hands are of the same shape as those of the original.
The revolutionary tuning fork caliber 214 was replaced with the Precisionist, the innovating and high performing in-house quartz movement that was introduced in 2010. It represents the new generation of high-precision quartz movements and is six times more precise than a classic quartz caliber. The second hand moves continuously as happens in mechanical calibers and in the caliber 214. The price ranges from $399 to $560. The hidden crown is positioned on the case’s side and not on the back as on the 1960 model.
Accutron watches are not rare to find. However, you need to be careful with their condition. Go for pieces that are in excellent condition as the components are difficult to find nowadays. There are very beautiful models worth between €500 and €1,000. The Spaceview is the most sought after piece and is subsequently more expensive.