Bulova's relationship with the US space program began in 1958, when the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory approached Bulova to provide timekeeping mechanisms for the Project Vanguard satellite program. The first Accutron in space was aboard the Vanguard 1 satellite, which achieved orbit on March 17, 1958. Accutron timers were subsequently used in many early series of communication satellites, including Explorer, Tiros, Relay, Syncom, Telstar and Pegasus. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 both flew with Accutron panel clocks, and the Apollo program used dozens of Accutron mechanisms in various mission-critical functions.
The Bulova Timer Laboratory ultimately produced over 200 different models of military and industrial instrument timers with specialized complications, including a 1000-day counter, a 5-year switch, a cycle timer and a digital output timer. Such devices are among the rarest of all Accutron timepieces.
Bulova Accutron TE-14 Calendar Clock with 1000-day resettable counter, shown in normal operation; M9 (1969) date code. This clock was also available with a 1-31 day display in place of the 0-999 day display. This particular model of clock features a miniature 34x34mm panel-mount case, and was also available in an alternate D-shaped side-mount case. Folklore states that this specific type of clock was used in Cold War-era photographic reconnaissance aircraft.
Accutron TE-14 clock, reverse. This case back is slightly unusual, in that it does not have a traditional Accutron date code, and has an unusual matte military finish, not found on commercial 214 timepieces.
Accutron TE-14 clock, case back removed. The 214 (214HH?) movement has a M9 (1969) date code stamped on the pillar plate.
Accutron TE-14 clock. Most 214 variants have a pillar plate with a beveled face designed to accept a domed dial, but the TE-14 has an unusual flat-faced pillar plate, designed to mount flush with the flat rear plate of the totalizer sub-assembly.
Accutron TE-14 clock. The 0-999 day totalizer has individually resettable digits with spring-loaded reset pins. These pins are accessible from the outside of the case through three pinholes.
Accutron TE-14 clock, internal side view showing the day totalizer wheels in profile.
In addition to their instrument timers, Bulova also produced the Accutron Astronaut, a GMT wrist timepiece with a 24-hour rotating bezel, secondary 24-hour hand and hack function. After its commercial introduction in 1962, the Accutron Astronaut became the officially issued watch for all pilots of the USAF X-15 experimental rocket-powered aircraft program, and was later issued to CIA pilots in the Lockheed A-12 program. The Astronaut is the only timepiece to use the Accutron 214HN movement sub-caliber, and remains to this day a paragon of American watchmaking and industrial design.
Bulova Accutron Astronaut, M4 (1964), unspecified stainless steel variant with unusual silver sunburst dial.
Bulova Accutron Astronaut N, M9 (1969) with luminous seconds hand.
Astronaut N, shown with original box and price tag. All stainless steel variants of Astronaut sold for $175 throughout the model's decade-long production lifespan.
Astronaut N, side view.
Astronaut N, case back. This Astronaut has a dual date code: the primary M9 date code indicates the case was produced in 1969, and the secondary N2 date code indicates the watch was not completed until 1972. The movement in this watch has a N0 (1970) date code.
Astronaut N, luminous function.
The Accutron Astronaut was adopted by both the USAF and the CIA for several early and important high speed flight programs. As touted in a Bulova magazine adevertisement from 1962, the Astronaut was issued to all pilots in the X-15 program. The Astronaut was worn by USAF pilot Joe Walker during his record-setting high altitude flight in 1963; pilot Robert M. White also wore an Astronaut, strapped around the large-diameter wrist of his pressure suit with multiple leather straps.
USAF pilot Robert M. White, pictured in the cockpit wearing his (barely visible) Accutron Astronaut. To this day, the North American X-15 holds the world record for the fastest (4,519 mph) manned aircraft ever built, and also held the altitude record (66.9 mi.) until superceded in 2004 by the privately owned SpaceShipOne experimental aircraft.
Enlargement of White's Accutron Astronaut. Note the unusual strap configuration.
Following its adoption by the X-15 program, the Accutron Astronaut was selected for the CIA's A-12 strategic reconnaissance program. All A-12 pilots were issued an Accutron Astronaut, which was worn in a small pocket on the left-hand glove of the pilot's pressure suit. As stated by CIA pilot Frank Murray, the Accutron Astronaut was "the only watch that could sustain reliable operation in the A-12 cockpit environment", and was impervious to the 140F temperatures experienced inside the A-12 cockpit. This is of particular note because early versions of the Accutron movement use a germanium transistor which becomes unstable above 130F.
CIA A-12 pilot Frank Murray, pictured with his Accutron Astronaut at Kadena Air Force Base (Okinawa) during Project Black Shield.
The Accutron Astronaut was the first American watch in space, and was worn by a number of NASA astronauts. Mercury pilot L. Gordon 'Gordo' Cooper Jr. flight-tested both the Accutron Astronaut and the Omega Speedmaster during his 22-orbit Mercury-Atlas 9 Faith 7 mission; Cooper noted that the Speedmaster had lost time due to the severe G-forces experienced during liftoff, while the Accutron remained unaffected. It is a popular myth among Omega enthusiasts that Cooper used his Speedmaster to time the retro burn during atmospheric re-entry. However, according to his autobiography Leap of Faith, Cooper used his Astronaut to time the retro burn, resulting in the most accurate splashdown achieved during the Mercury program.
Gordon Cooper, photographed during weigh-in for Faith 7. Cooper is wearing an Accutron Astronaut on his right wrist, and an Omega Speedmaster on his left wrist (not visible).
Enlargement of Cooper's Accutron Astronaut, an Astronaut 'A' with what appears to be a non-standard Kreisler herringbone bracelet. The exact time on Cooper's watch reads 14:19:23; the rotating bezel is set at +5 hours, indicating GMT versus Florida time.
Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, pictured with his daughter Kris and his Accutron Astronaut.
During training for the Gemini 3 mission, Virgil 'Gus' Grissom wore an Accutron Astronaut borrowed from backup pilot Wally Schirra. Grissom purchased a replacement Astronaut for Schirra after the Gemini 3 flight, which was finally given to Schirra by Grissom's widow after his death in January 1967.
Wally Schirra's Accutron Astronaut, a black-dialed Swiss variant. This watch sold at a Christie's auction for $3680 in 1999.
Controlled NASA chronograph trials in 1965 demonstrated severe gains and losses for the Speedmaster during decompression and acceleration tests, but many of the other watches tested experienced catastrophic failures, including crystal disengagement and warping of internal components. Other watches tested included offerings from Benrus, Elgin, Gruen, Hamilton, Longine, Mido, Piccard and Rolex, though only Longine, Omega and Rolex would survive to the second phase of testing. The type of Bulova watches tested in the 1965 trials, and their methods of failure, are currently unknown; Bulova watches later submitted to NASA's 1972 watch trials are known to have failed during the humidity and acceleration tests.
Although Gordon Cooper was known to be fond of Accutron watches, even as far as convincing other NASA astronauts to carry them, he would later state that the Omega Speedmaster chronograph "won over all the competition by a wide margin" when discussing the NASA trials. The focus of the trials was to select a virtually indestructible personal timepiece used primarily for interval timing, and in that role the rugged, low-cost Speedmaster with its chronograph function was the apparent winner.
Despite the chronograph trials, the Accutron saw widespread use in the Apollo program, in the form of in-flight instrument timers, panel clocks and navigational instruments. Accutron movements were used in all five Lunar Orbiter satellites, the ESEP and ALSEP scientific packages, the Apollo LEM itself and the Launch Escape System (LES). Accutron tuning forks were also used in Apollo's 'moon chopper' star-tracking navigational instrumentation.
The only other known example of an officially issued Accutron is a Swiss-made military 214, issued in small quantities to members of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) in Herstmonceux, England. The RGO Accutron features a black dial with white numerals, dauphine hands, and standard military engravings on the case back. Only a handful of these watches are known to exist.