Masterclass 7

Classic Fountain Pens - The History of the Parker 51 - by Arthur Twydle

In 1946, after five years overseas war service, I was de-mobbed from the British Army. In the same year, and around the same time, an old soldier from an earlier war died of leukaemia in Chicago. I knew nothing about pens, or him, but later came to realise the legacy this famous designer left to the world. On a visit to the Chicago Pen Show in April 1998 I thought how proud this man would have felt to hear the words "Parker 51" flow so easily from every penman's lips. This is the story of that man, a genius in the pen world, who created that famous pen and was influential in shaping my destiny for the next fifty years.

His name was Lazlo Moholy Nagy, born in Hungary in 1895. He read law in Budapest University but was always interested in art. At nineteen his studies were broken when he was conscripted into the Hungarian Army and was severely wounded on the Russian Front three years later. On discharge, after convalescence, he resumed and completed his studies and moved to Berlin, where he joined the staff of Bauhaus, the famous School of Art and Architecture. He became head of the metal workshop and taught the basic foundation course and photography. In 1934 rampant fascism forced him to leave Germany. He fled to Amsterdam but the following year he joined other refugees in London and obtained work as a poster and layout designer working for such clients as London Transport and Imperial Airways. In 1937 out of the blue came an invitation to head a new Bauhaus in Chicago, but unfortunately after a year the funding dried up and the venture collapsed, but Moholy succeeded in salvaging the concept from the wreckage and founded his own School of Design in a disused bakery in a back street of Chicago. Many of his former students rejoined and the school was staffed by former colleagues, some of whom worked for a time without pay. By the time of his death he had changed location in Chicago three times and had 680 enrolled students.

From his school he formed a small handpicked team to help him design his new pen concept. I have never read whether it was his idea which he sold to Parker or whether Parker asked him to design a new pen for them. Whichever way it was, it was Parker who got it and named it the Parker 51, as its completion coincided with the 51st anniversary of the company's inception.

The shape and style were described as 'from another planet'. The internal parts and functions I will describe later, but the grip of the pen as it nestled in that triangle formed by the thumb, forefinger and middle finger was comfortable, smooth and round. Great attention had been paid to its centre of gravity when held, and the balance with the cap positioned on the back in the writing position feels perfect.

The shell came to a point, so the eye followed this to the point where the nib touched the paper, and so the two points were exactly in line to touch the paper together without having to position them.

It was really ball pen writing but with a fountain pen, because no longer did one rely on the extra pressure required to flex the nib for variation of stroke and to meter the ink from the pierce hole to the paper. This was now controlled by the new ink collector. The pen had only one thickness of stroke size whether up or down, but determined by the spherical shape or the tip at the end of the nib. Provided the writer followed a parallel line from the beginning of a line to the end, great speed could be attained with little loss of legibility. It was the end of the copperplate writing I had been taught at my early school in the '20's.

Let us analyse exactly what Nagy designed in this famous Parker 51, which was a complete design innovation for a writing instrument. 'Ten years ahead of its time' was the cry.

The shape and form of each part were the result of functional tests. It even had a special formula ink made for it. The only parts incorporated in the  new concept from any earlier models were the speedline aluminium pump, which in itself was a new invention, used only in the Vacumatic a few years earlier, and the blue diamond clip. He was never happy with the old vac clip and commissioned a designer from another field to come up with a new one. The 'arrow clip' was born and became the registered trade mark of the company. In various forms it appears on all Parker writing instruments to this day.

1. Cap

Most pre-war pens had screw-fit caps with body and cap of the same matching colour material. Here was a complete contrast. An outer cap of metal with a plastic inner liner that followed the contours of the outer and had a threaded top on which fitted a brass bush to lock on the clip, and finished off with mother-of-pearl clip screw. A clutch fitted between the inner and outer caps which locked onto a clutch ring standing proud on the barrel. There was a clever vent hold in the inner cap sunk into a recessed groove to allow the air to escape from inside the cap when closed to avoid any compression of trapped air or suction when opened. This made a perfect airtight fit to keep the nib point wet at all times.

2. Collector

The collector or ink flow governor was the most radical technical design part of the new pen. Almost at a stroke it cut out all the skill required to assemble the nib, feed and section and all the adjustments necessary to fine tune the feed to the nib under heat. Here was a plastic insert internally cut in steps so that each part that fitted into it had its own stop; the nib and feed when fitted just pushed into a predetermined ledge. It was the repairman's dream. A simple friction fit into the barrel, it had fine cylindrical cut fins with deep grooves that controlled the ink flow and suspended it in the capillary fins for use immediately the pen touched paper. The whole front part - nib, feed, breather tube and collector were protected and secured by a screw-on shell.

3. Shell & Barrel

A new material named 'Lucite' had appeared. It was light, stable in extreme temperatures and very strong. It was tested for pen parts and passed all the functional tests. It was used extensively during the war to make bomber aircraft turrets. Lots of the transparent demonstrator pens are made of Lucite. It does not stain easily and can be coloured. The shell, barrel and cap were made in this material in four colours: black, dove grey, cordovan brown and blue cedar. The barrel became the ink reservoir with an ink capacity greater than most pens in use at that time, and pumped in with the speedline aluminium pump previously fitted in the Vacumtic pen. Government restrictions on aluminium due to the war very early curtailed its use for this purpose and a new plastic pump was devised which remained in use for many years. To fill correctly and to capacity required 12 pumps of the plunger with a one second pause after each complete stroke. On the 12th stroke pull out of the ink in the depressed position, and on release all the surplus ink is sucked into the pen.

4. Nib

This was a complete innovation as to shape - no curves, which reduced waste in the cutting room - just a triangular arrow shape 10mm x 12mm tall being the first cut from a sheet of gold. After nicking off the sharp corners a more square base appears which, when rolled, takes on the form of a tubular nib. The rolling of the nib into a tube adds firmness to the point, which is further strengthened when the normal slit from point to pierce hole is left uncut in the middle.

5. Ink

A special 'Superchrome' with a new turquoise blue colour was created exclusively for the Parker 51. Defined as 'drying three times faster than ordinary ink', and a dye content 3-10 times greater with super performance and 11 times more resistant to fading than government standards. These were the advertising claims of the day. What I do remember is that 51 Superchrome had a greater penetration rather than a faster rate of surface evaporation, so it did dry quicker but was not so good on airmail paper.

By 1951 (six years after the death of Nagy) the Parker design team had perfected the new Parker 51 with the remarkable  'aero-metric' ink system. This was introduced to the world in time for the Christmas trade 1953 and now had its own family, which included a demi model (designed for ladies) and a Parker 21 (a school pen).

Aero-metric was an entirely new method of drawing ink from the bottle, storing, safeguarding and releasing ink with just one moving part - the pressure bar. Housed in a silver sleeve, the moveable pressure bar filled the pen as easily as touching thumb to fingertips. Four or five presses on the bar filled it to capacity instead of the twelve pump actions of the old vac model. The ink reservoir was now a transparent pli-glass sac with a thirty-year life expectancy, with windows either side of the pressure bar to check the ink level. The pen now had five layers of insulation and a longer metal breather tube to equalise variations in air pressure. The early adverts read "new writing mileage - holds more ink for up to 25% more writing". This was inaccurate because measured out in simple terms the new aero system held 25 drops against 50+ drops in the old vac, but I do not recall any of Parker's competitors making a fuss at the time. Also, the transparent ink reservoir stained very quickly when filled with permanent coloured ink and so was ineffective.

The price of the new model increased to $13.50 in America, but in the UK it was still beow £5. The colour range had now increased to black and seven other colours, but in the UK Parker settled for only four: black, teal blue, maroon and grey, with popularity in that order. The Demi and 21 models were never sold in the UK and by now Parker were the undisputed world leaders in fountain pens, and in my own group of 'Pen Corner' pen shops, Parker sales accounted for between 40% and 50% of shop takings. The competitors were Waterman, Swan, Conway Stewart, Onoto, Wyvern, Summit and Mentmore, with Platignum monopolising the school pen market with their steel nib pens.

There was always this objection to the Parker 51 as being 'too expensive', which was understandable - at just under £5 the cheapest model was more than the average weekly wage.

After the introduction of the Parker 61, the 51 was modernised yet again and 'streamlined'. Most of its component parts were modified to take into account its new, slimmer look, but its basic function remained the same.

Many guesses have been made as to how many Parker 51s were sold during its lifetime, but to my knowledge Parker never printed specific numbers. However, during the 50's and 60's they often confirmed that well in excess of one million a year were being sold.

We still receive many 51s for restoration, often with the original nib, which makes them 40 or 50 years old and still in regular use. Truly a most durable item of the 20th century.