In January of this year, we took a hands-on look at a 1973 Timex Electronic Model #52, an electronic watch powered by a battery that utilizes a balance wheel for regulation. Today we’re looking at a 1970 Bulova Accutron Spaceview, another electronic watch like the Timex, but this one uses a tuning fork to regulate the movement instead of a balance wheel. Both enjoy a sweeping seconds hand and a year-long battery life, but instead of the tick-tick-tick that accompanies the wheel’s oscillation, the Bulova offers a steady high-pitched hummm as the tuning fork vibrates at 360 hertz. Using a tuning fork to keep steady time was a miraculous innovation for watchmaking. The Bulova Accutron was guaranteed precise within 1 minute per month, or 2 seconds per day, which was a significant improvement over mechanical movements that dominated the market at that time.
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Bulova was also a pioneer and leader in advertising. In 1926, Bulova produced the nation’s first radio commercial. In 1941, when the world’s first legal television commercial aired, it was for Bulova (watch it above, it’s only 10 seconds). And, in my opinion, Bulova was among the brands producing the top print advertisements of the time. So it’s fitting that Bulova would make an appearance in Mad Men. If you watch the AMC TV show, then you probably saw the season 7 opener with the Bulova Accutron pitch.
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Pat, a friend and former colleague, let me get a hands-on look at his Accutron shortly after the season premier aired in April. We’re in his twelfth-floor office on where else but Madison Avenue. As I’m holding the watch and snapping a couple of photos, he tells me the story of how that watch came into his possession from his father. Pat’s father, John, was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada. At the age of 14, he moved to the Astoria neighborhood in Queens, New York where he met his wife and Pat’s mother.
By his early twenties, John found success in construction as a site manager and eventually a vice president, and like so many of us, he saw no better way to commemorate his professional success than to buy the most accurate wrist watch on the market. He chose a Bulova Accutron Spaceview, which at the time retailed for about $250 and was one of the hottest watches you could buy with that kind of money. To put it in perspective, a stainless steel Rolex Datejust retailed for $255. The Accutron was the watch to have. The future of watchmaking, it promised a convenience and reliability that even a Rolex couldn’t offer.
It’s hard to imagine that the watch market had once grown tired of mechanical watches. As of late, these wrist watches have been enjoying an undisputed renaissance, but there was a time in the mid-twentieth century when the watch-wearing public grew tired of their imprecision and requisite daily winding or wearing. In 1969, Seiko launched the Astron, the first quartz watch that gave consumers an affordable, precise and hassle-free timepiece. Quartz timekeeping technology would catch on throughout the next decade and put countless Swiss watchmaking firms out of business. But there was a brief moment between when the reign of mainsprings came to an end and the quartz crystal regulator became the norm where a transitional technology was at play. From 1957 until around the mid-1970s, electric and electronic watches promised consumers improved performance and less frequent maintenance. Hamilton, Omega, Bulova and Timex were some of the prominent brands answering consumers’ cries for a better wrist watch during these years.
Pat smiles and shakes his head. Several years ago, before Mad Men’s first episode even aired, Pat’s father showed him his Bulova Accutron, and Pat was repulsed by its aesthetic. He wasn’t interested in hearing about its importance or its history, much less having or wearing it, and so his father held onto it. Pat hated the watch.
Upon hearing this, my eyes widened in disbelief and a little laughter escaped. By no means is it a beautiful watch–it was never intended to be (more on that later)–but it’s a piece of horological history and not to be dismissed as anything less than groundbreaking. Today, a working Accutron Spaceview in good shape with a decent service history commands a price greater than three times what Pat’s dad spent.
“It was my fault,” Pat said, lamenting his prior distaste for the watch. Since then, his appreciation for watches has grown and he’s picked up sophistication along the way. Tastes change over the years, and it’s usually a good idea that we occasionally revisit some of the things we write off. We might like them this time around. Season 7 of Mad Men was the right reminder. When the topic of the Accutron came up, Pat’s dad reminded him that he hated the watch, but when he brought the watch out and gave it to Pat, he felt differently this time around. Proudly, he posted his new treasure on Facebook. I reached out to Pat and that’s how I wound up in his office talking watches on Madison Avenue.
1970 Gold Cushion Case Accutron Spaceview
Long after Pat finished the story, I was still turning the watch over in my hands, squinting my eyes and studying the 18K gold-filled case and its futuristic insides through a crystal badly in need of a polishing. I put it on my wrist and the 38mm case wore perfectly, but something seemed off. Rather, something seemed too right. It was the crown. It wasn’t there.
Bulova sent a message by omitting a traditional crown from the side of the case and instead installed an articulated C-shaped lever that can be lifted from the case back and turned to adjust the time. The message was clear: you’re not going to need the crown, so let’s tuck it away. Accurate to 1 minute per month, you wouldn’t have been spending much effort adjusting the time on a regular basis like with a mechanical watch. And you wouldn’t use it to wind the watch either. Just change the battery once each year. Bulova would even foot the bill for your first replacement power cell.
Beneath the C-shaped lever and the slotted hatch cover where the battery lives is the serial number, deeply etched into the steel back. Beneath that, “N0.” That’s Bulova’s code for “70,” which means this particular Accutron was manufactured in 1970.
Pat broke the silence. “What are you looking at?” What the hell is so special about this watch? What do I see that Pat doesn’t?
When you hold an electric or electronic watch in your hands, you’re holding a brief moment in watchmaking history. While mechanical watch and clock movements have been made for hundreds of years until quartz took over, these watches enjoyed a lifespan of only two decades. They combined a charming and smooth seconds hand sweep so beloved by mechanical watch owners with the accuracy and power reserve that only quartz can deliver. There are a lot of vintage mechanicals out there. There just aren’t a lot of vintage electrics and electronics.
And the Spaceview is particularly special because it was an accidental success.
The Accident that is the Bulova Accutron Spaceview
Some of the best innovations are born out of accidents. Brands and creators focus their hearts and minds on one thing but sometimes the market has different plans for their products. Play-Doh, originally a cleaning material to scrub coal soot from the walls of homes, faced bankruptcy in America’s transition to natural gas but ultimately saved itself from demise and raked in colossal profits by repurposing its product as a children’s toy. The Slinky is another accidental discovery turned childhood staple. Then there’s Super Glue. Teflon. And the Bulova Accutron Spaceview.
No, Bulova didn’t stumble upon the Accutron. The brand intentionally launched the world’s first electronic watch in 1960. However, the watch as we know it–the one with the branded crystal that lets the latest in timekeeping technology serve as the dial–was merely a marketing prop to aid dealers in showcasing the innovation and explaining to customers how an Accutron worked. In preparation for the launch, Bulova manufactured a limited set of “skeletonized” Accutrons and produced “conversion kits” that would allow a dealer to transform any Bulova with a dial into the open version–again, all for marketing purposes. If you were to stroll into a watch dealer when the Accutron debuted in October of 1960, you’d see an Accutron in the window that showed off the electronic inner-workings of the movement, but that version wasn’t originally intended for sale. But that was the version the public wanted, and dealers readily sold the open dial models to customers.
Within a year, Bulova was producing more printed crystals and officially added the “Spaceview” model to its lineup. In 1962, Bulova had translated the feedback in the market into a whole new design. The new Spaceview housed the same caliber 241 tuning fork movement, but instead of a printed crystal Bulova implemented a chapter ring containing the hour and minute markers, which is what we have here. The original Alpha models featured a solid 14K gold case, although Bulova switched to gold-plated cases in order to meet rising demand for the Spaceview. Manufacturing of the Spaceview continued until 1977.
To Be Continued…
Pat plans on taking his new Accutron in for service, getting the watch running again and getting the case and crystal back in good shape. When that happens, we’ll check in again and get that classic sweep and tuning fork hummm on video.