I’m revisiting a topic that I had previously promised never to revisit. But due to the Pandemic, I’m finding it difficult to obtain samples of the new Zuiko 100-400mm f/5-6.3 zoom and the new Voigtlander 29mm f/0.8 with which I had planned to test and write reviews. So to keep it somewhat m43 relevant, the images and video were shot with the Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens.
If you read the two previous blog entries on vintage watches, you will recall that the Bulova Accutron was the first electronic watch, introduced in 1960 with a then unheard of accuracy of +/- 2 seconds per day or about a minute per month. I saw a special version of one a few weeks ago and became instantly smitten. I had to have one.
To people of my generation, born sometime during the 1960s, we are particularly attuned to products that represented stunning technological breakthroughs from the innovation spinoffs of World War 2 through to the US Space program. Companies with these products often dominated their markets for years with zero competition because none simply existed. Products that I became very familiar with because they also represented cultural milestones in my life. I’m thinking of the Polaroid SX70 Land Camera, the Xerox Photocopier, the Hamilton Pulsar LED digital watch, the Questar Maksutov Cassegrain telescope, and the Apple ][ home computer. And I would definitely add to this list, the Bulova Accutron watch.
Sadly, many of these companies are defunct and none make the original product. Except Questar, which implies that a quality made telescope is more forever than diamonds. Sadder still is that all these companies are American companies and although the US still leads in innovation, it doesn’t dominate as it once did.
Mechanical watch movements in the 1950s were approaching the terminal limits of development and refinement and yet only an accuracy of +/- 3-5 seconds per day could be attained subject to the trauma inflicted by the wearer on his watch through his daily activities. The Bulova Accutron burst onto the scene in 1960 as the first electronic watch with a mechanism that had no main spring, no balance wheel and no balance spring. An electromagnetically driven tuning fork was made to oscillate at exactly 360 Hz with a single transistor circuit that modulated the voltage delivered from a 1.35 volt mercury battery cell to ensure the constant frequency. Attached to one of the vibrating tines of the tuning fork was a lever that actuates a 300 tooth gear wheel. Unlike a mechanical watch, the Accutron’s second hand advances in 1/360th of a second jumps but to the human eye it appears as a fluid sweeping movement.
The Accutron watch was lighter, much less prone to rough handling and performed across a much wider temperature range than mechanical movements. Pilots wore them as official gear for the X-15 program as well as on board the SR71 Blackbird spyplane. Accutron clocks were regulation time instruments on board all US spacecraft. And an Accutron watch finally made it to the Moon on Apollo 15 after the crystal popped off the standard issue Omega Speedmaster Professional worn by the Mission Commander. Famously, Elvis wore one and so did Paul Newman. And a pitch for Accutron made it to one of the episodes of Mad Men with the fictional slogan “Accutron. It’s not a time piece, it’s a conversation piece.“
But by the late 1960s, Seiko finally marketed a quartz wristwatch having successfully miniaturized the mechanism and addressed the high power consumption issues. Still the early watches were quite expensive (the Seiko Astron in 1969 cost as much as a Toyota Corolla) but their much higher frequency of oscillation promised better accuracy and the prices of later quartz watches dropped precipitously. An Accutron in the mid 1960s cost about $150 which represented only 2-3% of the average annual earnings of that time. Accutron soldiered on until 1977.
This is my Accutron. It is known as the UFO or Flying Saucer Accutron Spaceview and was manufactured in 1970 from the American factory (there was also a Swiss factory). The Spaceview model was originally conceived to allow dealers to show prospective customers the unique Accutron mechanism by removing the face dial. This look proved so popular that many dealers converted regular Accutron watches to Spaceview models by removing the original hands and face dial, replacing them with the higher contrast white hands and retrofitting the special crystal with the minute and hour markings.
The watch is in superb physical condition and was likely seldom worn. It comes with an authentic Accutron metal band and original box. The serial number of the case implies that this was probably not a factory Spaceview model and likely converted by a dealer and the red second hand was available from 1970 onwards. Currently the watch runs 15 seconds fast each day and it may be due to the fact it is running on a modern 1.5 V silver oxide battery. The 1.35 V mercury batteries are no longer available but special silver oxide batteries outputting 1.3 V can be ordered and may address this issue. Likely the watch does need to go in for a regular lubrication service.
Below is a video showing the iconic Accutron second hand sweeping movement and 360 Hz hum of the tuning fork. Make sure to set your volume to maximum, the hum is very faint!
In 2008 Citizen, the largest watch company in the world, bought Bulova. This was fitting because Citizen manufactured the Caravelle line of watches for Bulova beginning in 1962 to compete directly against the less expensive Timex line. To honor the 50th anniversary of Accutron, the new Bulova company had to reverse engineer their own watches since all the tooling and first hand manufacturing knowledge had been lost to time. In 2010 they made a limited edition of only 1000 Accutron Spaceview watches which were immediately snatched up by collectors at premium prices. There is a new line of Accutron watches today featuring once again a pioneering technology using electrostatic motors instead of conventional electromagnetic ones!
Addendum February 2, 2021:
It is widely known that amongst the many watches submitted, only the Omega Speedmaster Professional passed all the NASA flight tests (and by a wide margin according to some accounts). It is unknown what test(s) the Accutron failed but certainly the failure of even one test was enough to disqualify a watch brand. However Accutron was the first American brand to make it into space, worn by Gordon Cooper aboard the Mercury Atlas 9 Faith 7 mission. He actually wore both the Accutron Astronaut and the Omega Speedmaster Professional and observed that the Omega had lost time due to the severe G forces of liftoff while the Accutron remained unaffected and he later used that watch to time his retro burn resulting in the most accurate splashdown achieved in the Mercury program.
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