Parker 61 fountain pen graphic

Classic Projects: Parker 61 fountain pen

DATE: 1956DESIGNER: Don DomanCOST: Available secondhand from around £60

"The remarkable Parker 61 fills itself by the magic of capillary action. You dip the filling end into a bottle of ink, and in just 10 seconds it drinks enough ink to write for hours." So said the marketing blurb for what was at the time a "pen unlike any pen in this world ... or any other."

The 1950s was the big era of technical development in the world of the fountain pen. Hot on the heels of the classic Parker 51, the model 61 (which was to evolve through many incremental steps) was slimmer, stylistically ground-breaking and, most importantly, it filled itself. Scores of Parker engineers worked for years to perfect a 'no mess' system that would refill the pen without the need for moving parts and would compete not just with fountain pens such as the Snorkel from Scheaffer and cartridge systems from Waterman, but also with the encroaching world of the ballpoint. Its capillary action, to a market that was used to syringe-style systems and cartridges, was like something out of science fiction, especially as the filler unit was coated with ink-repellent PTFE-formula material called Teflon from DuPont, which had been used in the development of space-age non-stick cooking pans.

The key to the success of the design was its simplicity. With a low part count, Parker was able to keep the pen's overall shape streamlined. In fact, there are no moving parts in the original 61: no buttons, levers, plungers, squeeze bars or converters. But manufacturing costs were high relative to the benefits the writing instrument brought to the user. While the pen was reliable and wrote extremely well, the ink delivery method meant that the 61 was less convenient for users. Opinion was divided over the merits of the concealed, or 'hooded' nib. While the styling was novel and attractive, some users found it difficult to work out how to orient the pen on the paper. Designer Don Doman overcame this by designing in a decorative feature (an inlaid metal arrow) to indicate the nib position. Doman insisted that the arrow be countersunk flush into the body, which added to the production costs. The innovation was only a partial success, as the arrow was prone to falling out.

Knowing that it had a classic on its hands, Parker was not to be derailed by such details and the company quickly developed new models with increasingly glamorous styling. While earlier models were a more conservative grey or black (albeit with stunning polished stainless steel and gold caps), by the time the 61 MkII came on the scene, new colours such as Vista Blue were being added and models were given exciting names such as 'Jet Flighter' to align the product with the post-war aviation explosion. Advertisements for the Jet Flighter boasted of how well it performed when tested in the new Douglas DC-8 airliner, "eight miles up! Flashing along at 600 miles an hour...!"

Ultimately what caused the demise of the Parker 61 was the technology that made it such a superstar in the first place. The capillary filling mechanism was high maintenance: prone to clogging, it required frequent cleaning. Eventually Parker gave in to customer complaints – users who were accustomed to increasingly clean and efficient ballpoints became reluctant to go through the process of cleaning the nib – and redesigned the instrument with a converter for use with cartridges. Today, most serious pen collectors are underwhelmed by the early 61s, which is a pity because what caused the downfall of this classic design was not a fault of the pen itself.

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