Bulova Submersible 'MIL-SHIPS-W-2181'

Museum Piece
A purpose-built prototype, that remained unknown for decades, and still is shrouded in mystery.


A purpose-built prototype, that remained unknown for decades, and still is shrouded in mystery.

"A new submersible wrist watch has been developed by the Bureau of Ships and the Bulova Watch Company primarily for use by Navy underwater swimmers and divers". Reads the first line of an article in the 1959 edition of the Bureau of Ships Journal. This timepiece is also often referred to by its military reference MIL-SHIPS-W-2181. It has been developed for the US Navy, more specifically to fulfil an operational need of the UDT & EOD, respectively the Underwater Demolition Team and the Explosive Ordnance Divers. The required spec, released in 1955, read: it has to be impervious to water ingress, offer visibility in the dark and have an outer, rotatable ring.

Bulova had been working with the American government prior; they delivered watches for the Armed Forces in the 40's. They aimed to also win this contract and brought their A-game in producing this very model. It resulted in a reliable wrist companion that isn't only pressure-tight to 400 feet, but truly nonmagnetic as well. It successfully endured vigorous testing (which is well documented) in 1957 and 1958. However, Bulova didn't follow through, for reasons that are unclear. Perhaps the juice wasn't worth the squeeze financially and it might otherwise interfere with the launch of their pivotal project: the Accutron.

Whatever the reason, Tornek-Rayville replaced the entry of Bulova and this Submersible was never taken in production. Therefore only a dozen are known to exist, most of which passed through the hands of Adam Victor. His contribution to the research -and subsequently the knowledge and understanding- of the exceedingly rare MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 is greatly appreciated. This specific example came out of his collection too, before it found its way to the Netherlands.

The brushed case comes in at 41mm. The large size was beneficial for the underwater visibility. Interestingly enough, the lug-width is only 16mm; as opposed to the usual 19 or 20mm. It is equipped with a knurled and luminous, rotatable bezel; which is exceptionally well-preserved with just a single crack. No surprise the matte black dial has contrasting white print and sports radium hour markers. The unusual squelette style handset has the same luminous compound, which turned equally brownish. Yes it is highly radioactive. Above the 6 o'clock marker we find a "moisture-sensitive indicator". The issue number is engraved on the screw-down caseback, that consist of a 3-piece construction.

A re-edition was recently launched. Quite unusual for a brand to pay respect to -what is basically- a failed endeavour, or at the very least: a venture that never came to live. But if you take a look at this original artefact, it is easy to conclude they have all the reasons to be proud.