The first electric watches were an important technological step in watch history. They were popular from 1957 until the mid 1970’s when Quartz watches which were cheaper and had greater accuracy took over. Two main types appeared during this period, those that used a balance wheel that was controlled electrically and the type where the balance wheel was replaced by a tuning fork and transistor.
Hamilton creates first electric watches
Hamilton started research and development into creating an electric watch from 1946. It would take them ten years before they could produce a working prototype. In their desire to be the watchmaker to release the worlds first electric watch the Hamilton 500 was hastily brought out in January 1957.
The idea of a watch that never needed winding caught the publics imagination and the Hamilton 500 sold very well, although was plagued by reliability issues. The 505, introduced in 1961 was an improvement over the 500, it resolved a problem with the contact wires and also made them easier to service. However by this point these watches had already developed a reputation for being difficult to service which was hard to overcome. In spite of their problems, Electric watches were Hamilton’s biggest sellers for 12 years until 1969.
Accutron introduces the tuning fork watch
The Accutron 214, the first tuning fork watch was released by Bulova in 1960. Due to its mechanism it had a distinctive hum and was certified to be accurate to within a second a day.
The Accutron is credited as being the first electronic watch, due to it being the first one to be controlled by a transistor. It was also the first that didnt use a traditional balance wheel and hairspring. Development of the watch began in 1953 by the engineer Max Hetzel and in November 1960 the Bulova Accutron 214 was announced for sale.
Unique and Highly Accurate Movement
The Accutron 214 used a tuning fork as its time base element. The accuracy of a watch is determined by how fast its time base element oscilates. For example, when the Accutron appeared in Nov 1960, the most accurate mechanical watches had a frequencey of 2Hz (beats a second). The Accutron’s tuning fork element had a frequency of 360 Hz* consequently making it much more accurate than the mechanical watches of its day.
Quartz watches appeared in the mid 70s with a typical frequency of 32,768 Hz and more accurate than electric watches. To give you an idea of how accurate todays most accurate watches, atomic watches are, they synchronize themselves with Atomic Clocks which use the caesium atom which vibrates at a frequency of 9,192,631,770 Hz!!! As a a result they are accurate to 1 second in 100,000 years.
Being the most accurate timepiece available led some of the first “Original Seven” Nasa astronauts to choose to an Accutron for space flight, Scott Carpenter being one for instance. The Accutron tuning fork movement was also chosen by Nasa to be used in panel clocks and instrument timers. Bulova made reference to this space connection, releasing models such as the “Spaceview” and “Astronaut”. The spaceview model came about in an interesting way. Bulova as part of its maketing campaign supplied window display models that had the dial removed in order to showcase the unique tuning fork mechanism inside. There were a huge number of requests to purchase the display model, leading Bulova to release it as a fully fledged model.
50th Anniversary Edition
In 2010 Bulova released a limited edition replica of the Accutron “Spaceview” model to commemorate its fifty year anniversary. Bulova Spaceview 50th Anniversary edition
Its interesting to note that the quartz crystal used in modern quartz watches is in fact the shape of a tuning fork. Accutrons had a unique “backset” feature, the time was set by lifting a latch on the back of the watch. They emitted a unique hum instead of a tick. Many other manufacturers brought out their own tuning fork watches including Mega, Citizen, Tissot.. *Omega produced a 720Hz `Megasonic` calibre.
A 1960’s commercial for the Accutron.