Ever since they were able to, Omega has boasted that they made “the first watch worn on the moon.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Speedmaster (and am wearing one as I write this piece) but their marketing slogan, while technically accurate, is still a bit misleading as to the full spectrum of horological instruments created for the space program. Among them was one of the greatest inventions in horology that wound up doing most of the horological “heavy lifting” for NASA. While Neil Armstrong was wearing an Omega caliber 321 Speedmaster when he took the first steps on the moon, the Bulova Accutron caliber 214 was powering the clock on the space shuttle, the clock and timer on the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), and just about every timer and clock used in every major satellite launched at the time. In essence, Bulova did all the major work, but Omega stole the spotlight at the last minute.
The Accutron 214 revolutionized timepiece accuracy. While Hamilton figured out how to replace the mainspring, their electric watches did not solve any of the major problems with the regulation and accuracy of wristwatches. Bulova’s tuning fork approach not only replaced the mainspring, it replaced the balance. In place of the balance are tuning forks that oscillate at 360Hz. To put this in perspective, a high-beat watch, like the Longines Ultra-Chron oscillates at 5Hz. This very high rate combined with a 320-toothed index wheel makes for the most stable rates and smoothest running second hand on a wristwatch. The movement was accurate to within a minute a month (or +/- 2 seconds/day.) When running, the coils produce the characteristic “hum” that many Accutron enthusiasts are seduced by. This innovation was unfortunately short lived as the quartz watch came to mass market just a few years after the Accutron series. The look of these watches however remains one of beautiful electrical and horological engineering that fits as well on the wrist as it does as Sci-Fi prop.
This particular 214 came to me in working condition, but in dire need of a cleaning and service. The fragile gear train and sensitive electronics necessitate keeping these pieces in tip-top internal shape to maintain their perfect working abilities. Fortunately Bulova did a fantastic job at making sure that the right tools were available for watchmakers to be able to service their watches. The 214 kits and manual make sure that the service of this watch is as easy as possible for a skilled watchmaker. Bulova also designed the 214 to not require full disassembly for a full service and cleaning. Since it had been so long since the watch was serviced however, I ignored that, and took the thing entirely apart for cleaning and inspection. After a full cleaning and reassembly, this Railroad Approved 214 was in action and ready to go for another 5 years.
This 214 is a remarkable piece of working history, and as parts get harder and more expensive to come by (and unlike mechanical watches, parts cant be machined), it is always nice to be able to hand a beautiful working example back to its cherishing owner to be enjoyed for years to come.