Watches You Should Know

This Space Age Technology Was a Watchmaking Milestone in 1960


February 17, 2020 Watches By Photo by Unwind In Time

Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Bulova Accutron Spaceview.

In retrospect, “The Watch That Hums” represented a pioneering link between the first battery-powered watches and the eventual tsunami of inexpensive quartz watches. Introduced in 1960, the Bulova Accutron looked, sounded, and functioned unlike any other watch. It was incredibly accurate, using a tuning fork that accounted for the humming referenced in the brand’s slogan. In its most interesting form, called the Spaceview, it also happens to visually represent the experimental, space-age mindset of the era.

Bulova didn’t initially intend to make the Spaceview. The first Accutron models, released in 1960, had traditional watch dials, and it was the highly accurate, groundbreaking technology inside that was the selling point — but this can be difficult to explain to consumers. Most people had only ever seen mechanical watches before, so a display model was sent to retailers that replaced the dial with a raw view of its electronic innards.

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Then, retailers were calling Bulova to say that people wanted the display model. Thus the Spaceview was born — at least, that’s how the story goes. Today, many brands produce dial-less and “skeletonized” watches in order to display their fascinating and prestigious mechanical movements — but this approach was nearly unheard-of at the time of the Spaceview. Bulova was ahead of its time stylistically as well as technologically.

Photo: mybulova.com

It was only three years before, in 1957, that the Hamilton Ventura had introduced the first battery-powered, electric watch. It wouldn’t be until almost ten years later, in 1969, that Seiko would fully break the traditional watch industry with the first timepiece regulated by a quartz crystal — the technology that would eventually prevail by virtue of its robustness, affordability, and extreme accuracy. The 1960s was a sort of in-between, exploratory era for watch technology, and the Accutron was an important player.

Centuries-old mechanical watchmaking was still the norm at this time: a slowly uncoiling spring (the mainspring) is used for power, and an oscillating wheel (the balance wheel), for regulation. Quartz watches would later replace the mainspring with a battery and the balance wheel with a vibrating quartz crystal. Today’s inexpensive quartz watches can operate at 32,768Hz, allowing them to be far, far more reliable and accurate than mechanical versions that typically have a frequency of perhaps 4Hz — that’s eight semi-oscillations (or audible ticks) per second.

In between mechanical and quartz on the horological timeline were Hamilton’s electric movement, which also used a balance wheel (operating at just 2.5Hz), and the Bulova Accutron, which used a vibrating tuning fork (before quartz technology would employ a similar concept). The Accutron’s movement was claimed to be accurate to around one minute per month, or two seconds per day — leaving mechanical movements in the dust. It operated at 360Hz, resulting in the aforementioned humming sound and a seconds hand that sweeps like that of a mechanical watch, only more smoothly.

Photo: mybulova.com

From a modern perspective, it might be challenging to imagine how people saw the Accutron at that time, but the tech must have seemed mind-blowing. The tuning fork itself is on display at the 6 o’clock position on the dial, but its vibrating isn’t visible to the naked eye and it’ll appear static. Its base is at exactly 6 o’clock while its prongs (or tines) extend upward to the drive coils at the top of the dial. To the left is the cell coil assembly — i.e., where the battery itself goes. To the right on the dial are a small mess of wires and components that include a transistor, resistor, capacitor…and which are technically beyond the the scope of this article to explore.

The earliest Spaceview watches had no dial whatsoever and printed the Bulova logo as well as the indices on the underside of the crystal. Later models added things like a chapter ring — and came in a range of designs and case shapes, including some quite funky ones — as the original cal. 214 movement was later updated to the cal. 218. Another interesting feature is that there’s no crown immediately visible, and time-setting is performed at the case back.

Advertisements from 1961 show Accutron watches retailing for $150, the equivalent of about $1,290 in 2020 dollars. The various versions of the Spaceview are all collectible and generally inexpensive as compared to many vintage watches. It’s even relatively easy to find modern batteries that’ll fit right in old Accutron movements and start them sweeping and humming away.

The Accutron’s tuning-fork tech survived for a time even into the quartz era and was adopted by other brands, such as Omega, with its Megasonic watches. More cool cred for the Accutron: it powered the first wristwatch to be accurate enough to qualify for official US Railroad use, and it was used in 46 NASA space missions. One advertisement from the time asserted that with the Accutron you could “wear a piece of a satellite as a wristwatch.”

Today, the tuning-fork movement is no longer produced, and Bulova has mostly stopped using the Accutron name. The brand’s modern Precisionist collection uses quartz movements (262,144Hz) that feel like descendents of the Accutron, as they similarly feature seconds hands that sweep like those of mechanical watches. The brand, however, did produce a limited collection of watches (using a Precisionist movement) called the Accutron II Alpha in 2014 that recalled the open dials of early Spaceview watches. It also seems that Bulova has more such tributes in the works as this year marks the Accutron’s 60th anniversary.

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Zen Love

Zen Love is Gear Patrol’s watch writer. He avoids the snooty side of the watch world, and seeks out food in NYC that resembles what he loved while living in Asia for over a decade.

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