This is a guide for buying and collecting Bulova Accutron watches - the world’s first tuning fork watch. Created in the 1960’s and 1970’s, they are now highly prized world-wide by watch collectors.
While people think the tuning fork watch was a 20th century invention, the first prototype mechanical tuning fork clock, the "pendule ç diapason", was manufactured by Louis F. Breguet, grandson of the watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. Breguet filed the patent on October 26, 1866, and March 1867. He also introduced a clock with a vibrating blade and mentioned a clock with 2 tuning forks and one with 2 vibrating blades. But the low frequency of the balance wheel made it impossible to improve on the accuracy of mechanical watches of the time, and the invention was ignored until the mid 20th century.
In 1952, Elgin and Lip introduced watches powered by batteries. This was heralded as the first true advancement in watchmaking in 400 years. However, these watches used a traditional balance wheel and offered no advancement in accuracy - it saved the wearer from remembering to wind it. Arde Bulova and the Bulova Company knew the Army needed more accuracy for instruments, and asked Swiss engineer Max Hetzel to look into using a higher frequency in an electronic watch based on the Breguet version - improving accuracy.
On October 10th, 1960, the new president of the Bulova, Omar Bradley, ex-chief of staff to Dwight Eisenhower, announced the Accutron Caliber 214, the first electronic watch in the world that did not rely on a balance wheel to run. The number of parts had been reduced to 27 of which only 12 were moving parts. By comparison, a self-winding watch at that time had about 136 parts, 26 moving. The sale of the Accutron started on October 25th and it took off immediately.
The "Bulova Accutron" has a frequency of 360 oscillations per second (360 Hz). The vibration of the tuning fork is controlled by a transistorized circuit. When the left magnet on the tuning fork moves to the right, the phase-sensing coil generates an induction voltage on the base of the transistor. The transistor "switches on" and becomes a conductor instead of a resistor. The electrical current is able to flow through the right circuit. The drive-coil becomes a magnet and gives an impulse to the permanent magnet. The movement of the permanent magnet in the driving-coil also causes an induction voltage opposing the power cell voltage. The result is a very small electric current and longer battery life. The problem ofturning the linear motion of the fork into a circular motion of the hands was solved by having the index jewel connected to the fork and pushing the ratchet wheel one tooth forward at a time. The pawl jewel is fixed to the watch frame and prevents the ratchet wheel from moving backwards. The ratchet wheel was an outstanding technical achievement - 2.4 mm in diameter, 0.04 mm thick with 300 teeth, each 1/100 mm high. In one year it revolves 38 million times. To protect this delicate ratchet system, the Accutron may be set only by turning the hands forward and to avoid damaging the delicate "fingers" that push it. Another technical achievement was the coil. The driving coil has 8,000 turns made of wire with a diameter of 0.015 mm and is an incredible 90 meters long.
However while Hetzel and Bulova were banking on the Accutron being the future of the watch, the majority of the watch industry was looking in a different direction - Quartz Technology. As the quartz movement gained popularity, it became cheaper to produce and equally as accurate as the Accutron. Accutron sales began to diminish. Soon, high end electronic watches like the Accutron virtually disappeared from the watch market - replaced with low end movements from Asia, mass produced for a fraction of what it cost to create an Accutron.
It wasn’t long before collectors of early electronic horology began to seek out tuning fork watches. Their limited years of production and styles made them the ideal collectable. As demand for "hummers" went up, so did the prices.
The original Accutron was the 214. They are easy to distinguish because of the unique "backset" system. This means that the crown that sets the watch is on the back, not on the side like traditional watches. The 214 came in many models - from men’s dress watches to railroad models. There are even a few 214 ladies’ pendant watches and some of the earlier models featured asymmetrical designs that combined stainless steel with 14 k gold. However by far the most collectable 214’s are the Spaceview and the Astronaut.
In the early 60’s, Bulova had a direct connection to the space program. NASA asked them to incorporate tuning fork technology into equipment for its burgeoning program. Accutron timing mechanisms were used in 46 NASA missions. As Americans went "space crazy", Bulova introduced the Spaceview and the Astronaut models to the commercial market. The Spaceview lacked a dial - revealing the tuning fork and movement and the Astronaut had a movable outer ring that allowed the wearer to use it as a timer or for monitoring a second time zone.
An Accutron watch movement actually sits on the moon today in the Sea of Tranquilit - in an instrument left there in 1969 by the crew of Apollo 11, the first men on the moon. It is hoped that one day that instrument will be recovered and tested back on earth.
By 1962, the 214 became the first wristwatch to be certified for use by railroad personnel. Prior to that, railroad workers used pocket watches, but frequently had to recalibrate in order to keep railroads running on time. The Accutron was guaranteed accurate to within one second a day or one minute a month, so coordinating times across the country was easier to accomplish.
Accutron introduced several models of desk clocks using the 214 movement. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson made the Accutron watch and clock the official "Gift of State" for visiting dignitaries and world leaders. By 1967, Accutron was the only timing device used on Air Force One as well as on many American military ships and planes.
Following the success of the 214, the 218 was introduced. The 218 returned to a system of setting the watch from the side; however the crown was at 4 o’clock instead of the traditional 3 o’clock. Styles and times were changing, and the 218 was available in many more models with colorful dials and unusual shapes and bands. The Spaceview and Astronaut models were essentially dropped, but Railroad and Divers watches became staples. There were also several rare 218’s including a skeletonized version similar to the Spaceview and even a Mickey Mouse version. Today both are highly prized by collectors.
The 218 was followed by a 219, a 221, a 224 and a 230. Women’s models became more common in the line. These higher caliber models are just beginning to enjoy collector status along with their older relatives the 214 and 218. Ladies models are largely ignored by collectors today. As they are becoming scarcer, starting a ladies’ collection just might be a good investment. The market right now is wide open and prices are very low. Styles of women’s models generally reflect the times they were created in - "mod" styles that are very retro at the moment. Another mostly neglected watch is Caravelle’s transistorized model. Caravelle is Bulova’s low end line. Being a cheaper watch, most of them became more or less "throwaway" watches and their scarcity is just becoming noticed by collectors.
Should you add an Accutron to your watch and clock collection? Why not? Many people still routinely wear the Accutrons they bought back in the 60’s and 70’s and many others have joined them in proudly wearing these "hummers". They are very reliable, workhorse type watches and still maintain their reputation for accuracy and style.
However, it should be noted that in the 1980’s, Bulova began to run out of spare parts for Accutrons, and by the 90’s, they stopped taking them in for repairs all together. Parts such as original coils and crystals are a commodity today. Coil problems are the most common cause of Accutron failure, and a coil repair job can be expensive.
The number of CATs - Certified Accutron Technicians - that Bulova trained in the 60's and 70's has dwindled and today there are very few truly qualified Accutron repair technicians. Finding someone who can reliably repair them can often be difficult and those who do repairs often have long wait lists.
The best advice for choosing an Accutron watch for your collection is to choose a reputable dealer who can advise you accurately regarding the condition of the watch and its value. Be aware that many unscrupulous sellers have been known to remove dials from more common 214 models to create more costly Spaceviews. Do your homework and make sure you are getting what you pay for. A savvy collector knows how to tell a genuine Spaceview from an altered one by the case style and subltle differences in the hands.
Dating an Accutron watch is extremely easy. Bulova used a letter/number combination to date watches. L watches were made in the 50’s, M in the 60’s and N in the 70’s. The number that follows the letter indicates the actual year of production. An M6 watch was made in 1966 and an N0 in 1970 and so on. Remember that after the tuning fork years, Bulova continued to use the Accutron name and symbol on watches. Check dials carefully. Many watches that say Accutron also say Quartz and are NOT true tuning fork Accutrons.
An Accutron or two is a "must" in any watch collection. Many of us have considerably more than two because we love them. The Accutron represents the "missing link" between mechanical and quartz watch technology, and therefore has earned its place in the annals of horological history. PLEASE CONTINUE TO PARTS TWO AND THREE FOR MORE INFORMATION.
Buy It Now