Coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a sometimes nerve-wracking, sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes wacky and kitschy experience. It was a time stylistically when the transgressive exuberance of the 1960s began to become more a matter of style than political stance, and when the unbridled optimism of the Summer Of Love began to give way to, perhaps, a time of greater cynicism, if not outright self-serving hedonism. (Ask the man who knows.) It was also an extremely fraught time for the watch industry – 1969 may have been the year that we walked on the Moon but it was also the year when another, smaller revolution took place which we now know as the Quartz Crisis. Ultra-expensive analog quartz watches may have been the order of the day for the first year or two but the rapid democratization of the technology meant that you couldn't just sell on the strength of technical prowess – and the fact that quartz movements seemed much more homogenous qualitatively than mechanical movements, really emphasized the need to more than ever, sell on novelty and design. Of course, this had already been going on in mechanical watchmaking for years – with the exception of higher end manufacture movements the industry had increasingly begun to rely on ubiquitous outsourced movements which often differed very little from each other, except in terms of relatively trivial aspects of their cosmetics. But quartz really drove home the point that moving forward, the sizzle was going to increasingly overshadow the steak, and pursuant to offering the latest and greatest, a number of makers quickly began to get into the game of digital watches (as HODINKEE's Joe Thompson has so ably chronicled).*
Probably the single biggest revolution in terms of aesthetics was the advent of light-emitting diode digital watches. The light-emitting diode, or LED, is a semiconductor device that was a functional replacement for the earlier, vacuum-tube based (and very bulky) Nixie tube (which has its own charm and is still in use as a niche display solution for some digital clocks). Originally capable of emitting only infrared light, they were of no use at first for displays but in 1962, the first visible light LEDs were produced. You could have any color you wanted as long as it was red, and the first watch to use LEDs for its display – the Hamilton Pulsar – seemed in 1972 to represent the last word in mod and futuristic. In 1976, Bulova, after over a decade of unquestioned technical leadership with its Accutron tuning fork movements, introduced its first LED watch: the Computron. Like the Pulsar, the time was not continuously displayed – you pushed a button on the side of the aggressively angular case, and the time would be displayed in glowing red numerals.
The original Bulova Computron, 1976.
It is perhaps difficult today to understand just how much a part of a technological revolution it was possible to feel, by getting digital time from pushing a button, in the early 1970s. While there were of course already countless consumer electrical devices, electronic devices actuated with a pushbutton switch were only just starting to find their way into the market. Especially in the case of the wristwatch, the experience was a very novel one and very George Jetson – an implicit promise, like the Moon landings themselves, that the world of tomorrow was here today and that the utopian promise of technological and scientific advancement was being fulfilled in the here and now.*
This year at Baselworld, Bulova released a new version of the Computron which captures much of the gee-whiz fun of the original, if not exactly the same level of technological utopianism. Aesthetically the new Computron, which is available in gold, black, or chrome, seems as firmly an icon of the Seventies as leisure suits, disco, and The Joy Of Sex, and I mean that in a good way. As with the original, the time is only available at the push of a button; repeated pushes will cycle through various other displays which show running seconds, and the date; you can also see the time in an alternate time zone.*
The major difference between the original and the new version is that the new guy doesn't use LEDs – instead, it uses what looks like a very aggressively backlit LCD display, which is fine; LEDs gave way to LCDs as display technology for good reasons, mostly having to do with the fact that LCDs are simpler to manufacture and use considerably less power. The technical update doesn't reduce the appeal of the watch in the least, and actually improves its legibility – LEDs are not particularly bright, and the new Computron is much more readable as a result, especially in bright sunlight.
I am not a hundred per cent sure why the watch is being pitched as a driver's watch. Yes, it has an angled display which means, at least theoretically, if you have both hands on the steering wheel of your brand new crap-tastic 1973 Mustang II you can see the time without having to tilt your wrist. This theoretical advantage is more than outweighed in my view by the fact that you cannot in fact see the time without taking one hand off the wheel and pushing the button – a distraction-inducing and awkward thing to do in an automobile, certainly, especially in stop-and-go city traffic, but maybe this is a watch intended for cruising down an LA freeway with the top down, under which circumstances operating a push button seems less fraught with hazard.
The image above shows one interesting quirk of the display. It was shot at a fairly fast shutter speed – 1/320th of a second, which is faster than the other images in this article showing the display. As you can see, not all the LCD segments are illuminated; I don't know if this is a typical quirk of this particular type of display technology (the LCD displays in, for instance, Casio G-Shocks are backlit so that the entire display is illuminated at once) but if I had to hazard a guess I'd say that it's a power saving feature. If the circuitry is cycling through the illuminated segments rather than keeping them all lit at once, you might have a considerable savings in the amount of energy used by the display.*
Another quite charming feature of the new Computron is the coin-operated battery hatch, which is a feature that I think Bulova might have pioneered for its Accutron watches. The earlier Hamilton Electric did not have a user-operable battery hatch so changing the battery was a job for a watchmaker and it still is for many modern quartz watches. User-operable battery hatches can be found today on Swatch quartz watches – you can open them with a penny – and are also present in the Q Timex. Despite the fact that most folks will still probably prefer to have someone else handle a battery change, the presence of a coin-operated battery hatch gives a fine, self-reliant DIY air to a wristwatch.
Though the 1970s are of course long gone (which is in many ways, not to be regretted, although personally I remember having a pretty good time, at least once in a while) you can still experience some of the casually gleeful sense of un-hung-up mellow fun that characterized the decade at its best, in the new Accutron Computron. In the course of preparing this story I have handed the watch to everyone from my youngest co-worker to a Silicon Valley software magnate and it did not fail in its most basic raison d'κtre, which is to put a grin on your face. Now as to the Unpleasant Matter Of The Bill, why certainly it is true that if you want the gold (colored) Limited Edition you must be prepared to part with $395 of your favorite dollars but the version you see here is $350 and if you want something that will, if you are of a certain vintage yourself, put you in mind of your first Texas Instruments calculator, you can get a very sleek Computron in black for the trifling sum of $295 smackeroos. Surely in this humorless and emotionally fraught age in which we live, a little good clean-ish fun is a Value Proposition.
The Amazing Bulova Computron: The Time At The Push Of A Button! Case, 31mm square up top, widening to 31mm x 41.50mm at the bottom; thickness, 13.80mm from the caseback to the highest point of the case. Backlit LED display in blue (chrome model) or red (gold ion plated or black ion plated models) with mineral crystal; 30mm water resistance. All models stainless steel with either silver-tone, gold-tone, or black cases. Find out more at