Skip to main content

The Buyable Past

May 2024
1min read

Accutron Watches

On October 25, 1960, Bulova unveiled a battery-powered watch called the Accutron. It wasn’t the industry’s first electronic model, but it was a breakthrough product.

A Bulova technical whiz named Max Hetzel had begun developing the Accutron in Switzerland in 1952 and later relocated the project !V to the company’s U.S. headquarters. Hetzel’s watch employed a new device known as the transistor and had at its heart an electromagnetic tuning fork that vibrated 360 times per second. It hummed rather than ticked.

Accutrons were exact to within a minute a month; Bulova guaranteed that precision, astounding for its time, in writing. The company’s chairman, Gen. Omar Bradley, a man who knew the importance of timing, may have had something to do with NASA’s decision to use Accutron mechanisms for several purposes. (Nevertheless, the space agency chose the Omega Speedmaster, a mechanical chronograph, for its astronauts to wear.)

A few of them preferred Accutrons. When Scott Carpenter appeared on a 1962 Paris Match cover wearing Accutron’s Astronaut model, the publicity value was incalculable. President Lyndon B. Johnson later made Accutron the official gift of state, and all the clocks on Air Force One employed Accutron technology. By 1977, when the company retired the tuning fork in favor of quartz-crystal technology, millions of the originals had been sold.

Owners of vintage Accutrons face a special set of problems today. Collectible watches have to be in good working order, but not many people can maintain or repair old Accutrons properly, and finding parts for them can be difficult.

And don’t expect aging Accutrons to take a drubbing and keep on humming either. One online dealer and restoration specialist, Christopher Maugham ( www.accutrontuningfork. com ), recently offered a Deep Sea model for $350. When new, the watch was approved for use under 666 feet of ocean, yet Maugham advised prospective buyers not to wear it while diving.

Other Accutrons for sale on the Internet lately ranged in price from the low to the high hundreds. Finer Times ( ) featured an example of the popular Spaceview, which has a transparent face that exposes the mechanism, for $449, and Maugham was asking $300 for an overhauled 1969 model that had been approved for use by railroad personnel.

—David Lander

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.