The Wristwatch Revolution

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Nearly three decades ago, a revolution was to hit the wristwatch industry. Very few watch making companies even saw this new 'disruptive technology' coming, but as surely as the computer revolution has changed our lives today, there was no escaping the 'new' hi-tech watches of tomorrow. The new technology rocked the Swiss industry, long complacent about their place at the top.

Bulova Corporation was one such rare company that not only predicted the changes in the watch industry but worked hard to pioneer innovative technology to bring this revolution about. Bulova had already spearheaded such techniques as the standardization of mechanical watch parts in the 20s and the mass production of jeweled time pieces at everyday prices, but few were ready for what was to be unveiled in 1960.


The Accutron Spaceview D

Max Hetzel

Accurate to within one minute a month and invented by Max Hetzel in the Bulova laboratory in Bienne, Switzerland in 1953, The Bulova Accutron watch was to set in motion an unstoppable revolution in the watch making industry. Not ticking, like a conventional mechanical watch of the day, the Accutron 'hummed' as power from an internal battery caused the tiny tuning fork (the symbol of Bulova Corporation to this day) to vibrate at exactly 360 cycles a second. It took William Bennett (Bulova's chief engineer in New York) and Egbert Van Haaften another four years before a commercially viable product emerged but when it was introduced into the market in 1960, it was the most accurate wristwatch of it's time.

This 'new' watch mechanism was to quickly be adopted by the current 'technology' of the day for a multitude of applications where an accurate portable time keeper was essential. From early US satellites to the exploration of the Arctic, Accutrons were suddenly everywhere. The Apollo space mission even took one to the Moon and left it behind in the Sea of Tranquility to time critical transmissions that were to help guide them home. Few people realize that without the aid of its Accutron time keeper, Apollo 13 could never have returned safely to earth.

Hamilton Electric 500

The first battery powered watches can actually be traced back to the Hamilton Watch Company, with the introduction of the Hamilton Electric 500 in 1957. Although these were the first electric wristwatches, their technology was far from revolutionary in that they still retained the old mechanical functions of the watch, merely replacing the mainspring with a tiny motor and battery. To disguise the absence of technology they designed futuristic looking watch cases like the Ventura, designed by Richard Arbib. These electric watches suffered from technical problems throughout the product run which lasted until the early1970s.

Pulsar

In 1972, Hamilton released the world's first digital quarts wristwatch with a red digital light emitting diode (LED) display. Although very expensive, the Pulsar, with a name chosen to reflect the new space age in watches, marked the beginning of the microelectronics age of the watch. The Pulsar was the product of a joint venture between Hamilton and Electro Data Inc, and for a number of years was only sold in men's styles. The name 'pulsar' came from the recently discovered neutron stars that were incredibly dense collapsed stars spinning at high speed. When identified, rotating with a polar alignment towards the Earth, these stars appeared to emit regular radio signals at precise pulsing intervals, almost as though produced by intelligent life.

The need to press a button every time the wearer wanted to tell the time became a nuisance and so the watch was later redeveloped to use the liquid crystal display (LCD). Watches carrying this brand name today are no longer made by Hamilton, who sold out to the Swiss in 1974. The separate division of the Pulsar watch wasn't sold to the Swiss but changed hands several times until eventually Seiko bought the name.

Bulova Accuquartz Men's Calendar Wristwatch

In the United States, the first commercially available quartz watch with an analog display was the Bulova Accuquartz men's calendar wristwatch. Introduced in 1970, these watches, with an 18K gold case, retailed for $1,325. It was these early quartz watches that utilized a technology that was to pave the way towards integrated circuits, what we know today as the electronic chip. These early quartz watches were accurate to about five seconds a month (remember that Siegmund Riefler's pendulum clock of 1889 kept time to an accuracy of about one hundredth of a second a day - see History of Time which translates to about one minute a year.

Innovations have continued in the watch industry to this day with the modern Bulova Millennia being available in automatically self-charging versions (motion Quartz), which can run for up to six months without wearing and solar powered Bulova Millennia and Bulova Marine Star watches.

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