The gentle hum of Tuning Fork Watches

It is no secret that I am not a huge fan of quartz watches. Not to say that there is anything wrong with quartz watches, they have their place in the world, but I just find them a little soulless, a little sterile. I love the little beating hearts of mechanical watches, but that does not, however, rule out electronic watches all together. There is a type of electronic watch that has every bit as much “soul” as a mechanical watch, I am of course talking about the tuning fork watch.

“Tuning fork watch?” I hear you say, “What on earth is that?”

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Well, picture the 1950s. Mechanical watches were the norm, quartz watches didn’t exist and there was a search for accurate timekeeping. It was the late 50’s early 60’s and technology was moving forward with leaps and bounds and many companies were exploring various technologies and one of them was Bulova. Bulova had employed physicist Max Hetzel from Basel and he came up with a revolutionary idea.

Instead of using a mainspring and balance wheel like a conventional mechanical watch a new type of watch was developed that used a tuning fork in it’s place which would vibrate at a very accurate frequency when powered by a battery. The vibrations are impossible to see as their frequency is very high (the Bulova has a frequency of 360Hz) and it’s amplitude minuscule. The accuracy was reported to be within a minute per month which was a huge leap forward from mechanical watches.

The first tuning fork watch was introduced the Bulova Accutron so named because of it’s Accuracy and Electronic nature. I think it is a fantastic name – typically from the era of the Space-Race and evokes all sorts of imagery of early electronics and robots.

Whilst promoting this brand new technology Bulova made a number of their Accutron watches without dials which would allow the workings of the watch to be seen. These watches were not intended for sale, but more as a marketing tool for use by jewellers to put in their windows as display models so that the amazed public could drool over the resistors and coils making the technological marvels work.

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It was soon apparent that the public didn’t just want the Accutron, but they wanted the marketing display versions with their electronic guts on display. The jewellers started selling them and even started converting standard models by taking the dials out. Bulova responded by introducing the version without the dial to the range and the Accutron “Spaceview” was born and it soon became the watch for the modern man. In fact I am fairly certain the George Jetson wore one (although I have no evidence whatsoever, or in fact and suggestion that this occurred. Actually I made that up, but I’d like to think it was true!)

It was not just Bulova that developed a range of tuning fork watches, Omega also embraced this technology and produced a range of tuning fork watches. These were made under licence from Bulova and were referred to as Omega f300 watches with f300 referring to the frequency that the tuning fork vibrates.

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Tuning fork watches are a bit like the Betamax of the horological world in that they were cutting edge technology that was pushing boundaries but was soon superseded by newer (and arguably better) technology, in the case of tuning fork watches this was the quartz movement. Because of this though they are not very common. I’d not go as far as to saw that they are ‘rare’ but they are certainly relatively scarce compared to mechanical or quartz watches.

Tuning fork watches seem to have much more character than quartz watches. I realise that character is a very difficult thing to quantify but there is something that is just so wonderful about holding a tuning fork watch to your ear and hearing it hum. Yes, you can actually hear the little tuning fork quietly hum which gave rise to them being nicknamed “Hummers”. I had to stop leaving my hummer on my bedside table as for some reason it acted as an amplifier in the still of the night and the gentle hum of the tuning fork would keep me awake, although when on the wrist it is not audible.

So there you have it, my secret love of electronic tuning fork watches. They can be picked up at relatively low cost but offer enormous value for money. Of course there is also the added benefit that you can wow your geeky chums with the revolutionary 1960’s technology within.