June 23, 2024

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The Tuning Fork Watch

Although consumers today may be familiar with Accutron watches as perhaps an unremarkable, but good quality and affordable Swiss made watch, the history of the Accutron brand is very important to the history of the wristwatch in the 20th Century.

To this day, Bulova and Accutron watches bear a tuning fork logo; a curious symbol for a watch company. Anyone familiar with the Accutron brand prior to 1977 may recognize the Accutron watch as “The tuning fork watch”. If you are lucky enough to have examined an old Accutron tuning fork watch, you may have heard the faint ringing hum of a tuning fork emanating from the watch. Any Accutron watch dealer will tell you that they are still questioned from time-to-time: “Whatever became of the tuning fork watches?”

An American success story in an industry dominated by the Swiss, Bulova was founded by Joseph Bulova, then a 23 year-old immigrant to the U.S. from Bohemia in 1875. Bulova began as a jeweler and didn’t begin manufacturing timepieces until 1911, but from there quickly developed into a watch industry powerhouse.

In the middle of the 20th Century, a few manufacturers began producing electric watches. Mechanically, these watches differed from traditional spring driven mechanical watches only in the fact that the same mechanism was driven by a small electric motor instead of a mainspring. They offered no gains in terms of accuracy.

In 1952, Bulova began to develop the Accutron. It would be, the company claims, the first real breakthrough in timekeeping technology in 300 years. Indeed, to that point, all watches and clocks operated on the same basic set of mechanical principles.

The Accutron watch would be something completely different. A small tuning fork device, would oscillate at a nearly constant frequency when an electrical current was run though it. The tuning fork was fitted to a ratcheting mechanism that turned a geared wheel forward one notch at a time with each oscillation cycle. Because it incorporated transistors, it became the first “electronic” watch.

The Accutron watch entered production in 1960. It promised accuracy to within two seconds a day, or one minute a month. An immediate success, Accutron was the first wristwatch to be certified as “railroad approved”. To that point, railroad engineers had used approved pocket watches which had to be frequently serviced and regulated. An examination of the history of horrific train collisions in the 19th Century will convince one of the importance of accurate timekeeping in the rail business.

In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson declared the Accutron watch to be “The Official Gift of State”.
NASA asked Bulova to produce timing mechanisms using Accutron technology for its space program. It is said that NASA asked Bulova to delay the introduction of Accutron to the public until after the first space missions were completed to avoid turning the Soviets on to the new technology too soon. Accutron timing devices were an integral part of 46 NASA missions. Today in fact, an Accutron device still sits on the moon as part of an instrument left there by Apollo 11 astronauts.

When Bulova introduced Accutron watches, it supplied dealers with display watches with transparent dials in order to showcase the new type of electronic movement. Although never intended for public consumption, customers began to request the Accutron with the open dial. In the end, the “Spaceview” became one to Accutron’s best selling models.

The eventual development of the quartz watch made Accutron technology obsolete, and by the end of the 1970s, Bulova had phased them out. But if quartz technology is sometimes characterized as “soulless” by watch aficionados, the Accutron was an electronic watch with soul.