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The Revolutionary Bulova Accutron Watch With a Tuning Fork Mechanism

6 min read June 01, 2022

Bulova - Accutron Spaceview 214 M3

Accutron is a name well-known to the majority of avid watch lovers. That's not surprising, given Accutron's revolutionary mechanism. The story behind it and the encompassing impact Accutron made on the watchmaking world are the centerpieces of our latest blog.

Since it has been a major influence from the day it was released, Accutron somewhat overshadowed the company that designed and produced it over the years that followed.

A graphic display of Accutron, where ACCUTRON stands for “ACCUracy through ElecTRONic”. image credit: watchonista.com )

Thus, to avoid any potential confusion on the matter, let's start the Accutron overview by reminding ourselves briefly of the history of Bulova, the outstanding watchmakers whose expertise and revolutionary ideas led to Accutron in the first place.

A brief history of the Bulova watch

Bulova watches history dates way back to 1875, when Joseph Bulova founded the company. The initial years of development and preparation resulted in the first-ever standardized mass production watch plant. And, it was only the first of many Bulova's firsts, an epithet that most precisely describes what Bulova stands for in the watchmaking world.

To name just a few: one of the first waterproof watches, one of the first full line of ladies' watches, the first-ever national radio and TV commercials... But, finally, what interests us most here, is the first fully electronic watch in the world - the infamous Bulova Accutron.

Now, what's so special about Accutron that it makes it Bulova's flagship model? Why NASA chose to use it onboard the rockets and space modules for 46 space missions and which Accutron models have been produced are just some of the questions we'll answer here.


 

A brief history of the Accutron

After more than eight years of research, testing, and trials, the Bulova Accutron hit the market in 1960. And it was well worth the wait. The first fully electronic watch, the Accutron, was the most significant watchmaking innovation in the last three centuries.

The rest is history. The Accutron took the timekeeping world by storm.

The revolutionary approach to making it happen was the use of the tuning fork technology in a watch mechanism. The idea that was more than a century old was built upon by Bulova engineers, led by Max Hetzel, resulting in the premier use of this technology in a wristwatch.

Max Hetzel, the lead manager behind a team that designed, engineered, and produced Accutron, ( image credit: watchonista.com )

Now, what's tuning fork technology, how does the tuning fork watch work, and what are its advantages?

Tuning fork technology operation and advantages

In a nutshell, the battery powers the transistors and the current goes through two driving coils. Each of the coils contains around 80 meters of copper wire as tiny as one-third of human hair. The coils surround the magnets on the edges of the tuning fork, causing it to vibrate under the influence of the induced magnetic field.

These vibrations then move the index wheel, which is 2.4mm in diameter and has 320 teeth. Staggering data altogether and a true engineering marvel at the time. That Bulova managed to produce such a tiny wheel whose teeth could only be seen under a microscope and make it so durable is yet another wonder of Accutron.

Accutron's tuning fork vibrates at a frequency between 300 and 700 Hz. That's 60 to 360 times more than the vibration frequency of a mechanical watch's balance wheel. As a result, the tuning fork mechanism is less dependent on lubrication, less affected by the influence of the exterior conditions, and significantly more resistant to gravity.

The Accutron tuning fork's high oscillation frequency guarantees high time-keeping precision, as well. ( image credit: watchonista.com )

All those features made the Accutron more precise than any mechanical watch and particularly interesting to aeronautical and transportation companies. The long-lived cooperation with NASA and US railroad personnel followed naturally.

Due to the high frequency of oscillation of the tuning fork, when you place your ear on the Accutron, you hear a characteristic hum instead of the usual ticking sound of a watch mechanism. That's yet another unique feature Accutron has.

Bulova Accutron's mechanism Caliber 214, the first-ever tuning fork movement. image credit: watchonista.com )

Looking at it from today's perspective, the electronics used in Accutron are pretty simple. However, back in the day, the use of transistors in a device that small was unheard of.

Of course, the goal of materializing the revolutionary idea of using a tuning fork as a driving force of a watch wasn't to show off. Instead, the primary goal was to produce the most precise watch mechanism in the history of horology. And Bulova certainly did it with Accutron.

The legendary Bulova Accutron watch models

Joe DiMaggio's Bulova Accutron, for sale in auctionJoe DiMaggio's Bulova Accutron, for sale in auction, ( image credit: hodinkee.com )

As we mentioned, Accutron arose enormous interest, resulting in many inquiries from interested parties worldwide. The biggest came from the transportation branches that relied on accuracy and reliability of timekeeping, namely railroad, aeronautics and space research. As a result, Bulova developed the Accutron Astronaut for the US space program and released it in 1962. In the years that came, it became the most popular Accutron.

Vintage Bulova Accuquartz Date

Vintage Accuquartz Date given a more contemporary outlook with a MiLTAT navy blue Italian nubuck leather strap

Since the visionary spirit and constant innovation have always been at the core of Bulova's watchmaking philosophy, resting on their laurels was not an option even after such huge success and popularity of the original Accutron. So instead, Bulova went on innovating during the 70s and 80s.

Vintage Bulova Accuquartz Date

Vintage Bulova Accuquartz perfectly paired with an Italian rebel leather tapered watch strap, top: Heavy Scratch Brown, bottom: Forest Como Pattern

The fruit of those efforts was their first in-house quartz movement, the caliber 224, which became a powerhouse behind the Bulova Accuquartz collection that followed. The exemplary models based on this caliber include the Accutron Quartz Watch released in 1976 and the various models from the 70s driven by the Bulova Accuquartz 2242 movement.

A couple of decades later, in 2008, Bulova Precisionist saw the light of day. Being another Bulova's flagship model, it quickly and rightfully earned a nickname of being the 'world's most accurate quartz watch with a continuously sweeping second hand.'

Another notable member of the Accutron family is the reissue of Accutron Spaceview, released to mark the 50th anniversary of Accutron.

Vintage Bulova Accuquartz Date

Bulova - Accutron Spaceview 214 M3 complemented by MiLTAT G10 military watch straps

Finally, a model that's bound to grab your attention while researching the Accutron family is the Bulova Accutron II Alpha. Released in 2014, Alpha's greatly inspired the Accutron Spaceview from 1960, featuring its famous open dial. The asymmetric case is another neat feature.

Bulova Accutron II Alpha, introduced at Basel World 2014 and inspired by the open dial of 1960 Accutron, image credit: watchonista.com )

Still, bear in mind that a hi-beat quartz movement powers both Accutron II Alpha and the Precisionist. Thus, they have a substantially more affordable price than the Accutrons with a tuning fork mechanism.

In summary

The story of Accutron is, by all means, a continual one, which is a good thing for all the watch lovers who plan on buying one of the watches from the Accutron family.

Some of the newer editions are naturally easier to find. For example, some, like Accutron II Alpha, are available at an affordable price. Especially compared to Accutron's from the sixties that occasionally appear on the market and regularly go for not less than five figures.

So, if you wish to buy one, keep an open eye, and you'll surely be able to find one that suits your preferences and budget. And, once you do, wear it with pride. After all, the Bulova slogan is still spot-on: "It's not a timepiece, it's a conversation piece.

Vintage Bulova Accuquartz Date

Vintage Bulova Accuquartz Date timeless elegance enhanced by a Genuine Tuscan leather watch strap


Written by S.K. , images by Toni and others as noted

 

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1 Response

Mjollnir
Mjollnir

September 19, 2022

A correction regarding your comment, “Accutron’s tuning fork vibrates at a frequency between 300 and 700 Hz.”

The range of Bulova Accutron movement frequency was a low of 341 1/3 HZ for the Accuquartz 224 series, to a high of 480 HZ of the 2300 series.

The more commonly known 214, 218 and 219 all were 360 HZ.

The Max Hetzel designed (after he left Bulova and was with ESA) and under Bulova license ESA9162 was 300 HZ.

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