Profile: The Parker 61

(This page revised February 17, 2014)

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61 Advertisement, 1957 Magnifying glass
This Parker adver­tise­ment for the 1956 Christmas season likens the rev­o­lu­tion­ary 61 to a pen from Outer Space, which was very much on the mind of the American public at that time.

Manufacturer logoUnlike any pen in this world … or any other — That was the slogan for the Parker advertising campaign launched in September 1956, in advance of the Christmas season, to introduce its newest and most revolutionary fountain pen. The pen was the striking new Parker 61. It was Parker’s ambitious entry in the “no-mess filling” competition, sparked by the 1945 arrival of the ballpoint pen, that had seen Sheaffer introduce the Snorkel in 1952 and Waterman the cartridge-filling C/F in 1953. According to Parker’s advertising, it took years of work by a research team of 50 people to develop the amazing 61, the first fountain pen that actually fills itself by itself, requiring no action from the user. The pen has no button, no lever, no plunger, no squeeze bar, and no cartridge or converter (these last two being several years in the future for Parker).Fountain pen filler The pen sucks up a fill by capillary action.First Edition medallion To fill the 61, you just unscrew the barrel and immerse the back end of the pen (the cylindrical filler unit, which Parker called the capillary cell) into a bottle of ink. An internal reservoir (the capillary cell) contains a sheet of plastic that has been perforated, embossed with a 3-D pattern resembling safety tread, and rolled up (U.S. Patents Nos 2,522,555 and 2,587,949). The holes allow ink to ooze between the rolled-up layers, and the embossed pattern maintains space between the layers. In the center, running the entire length of the capillary cell, is the feed. To reduce the potential mess to a minimum, the capillary cell has on its outside surface a coating of DuPont Teflon® that is intended to shed ink as the user withdraws the pen from the ink bottle, making it almost unnecessary to wipe off any remaining ink. (The key word here, unfortunately, is “almost”; in use, the Teflon can become shredded and peel off as it is scraped by the barrel during disassembly and reassembly.) The barrel contains a spring-loaded valve; when the user screws the barrel back onto the pen, the valve seals the opening at the end of the cell, and the pen is ready for use.

The capillary-filling 61 was (and still is) a remarkable pen, but it was ultimately unsuccessful because its somewhat finicky filling system required more care than others. Eventually Parker gave in to customer complaints and redesigned the 61 with a cartridge/converter filler.


Praelusio

Before a new product reaches the market, the manufacturer generally builds test models, or prototypes, that it can use to gauge manufacturability, reliability, serviceability, and — perhaps most important — marketability. Parker was no different; and when it came time to create the shape of the 61, the company developed some radical designs. One that never made it to market was this remarkably elegant second-version prototype designed by Nolan Rhoades (U.S. Patent Nº 2,773,479):

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Mark II Prototype Parker 61 (from the collection of John N. E. Wilson)

The photos of the nib and barrel end show the elegant pierced 61 that would ventilate the pen and allow it to fill without disassembly, simply by having its nib end immersed in ink. As lovely as this prototype is, it turns out to have several major problems as a pen for general use. The gold trim beneath the nib is very delicate and prone to bending, and the pen would emerge wet from an ink bottle and would require the cleaning that Parker wanted to avoid. The technical fault that killed this concept, however, is the fact that with the back end of the barrel open, the pen could not exert a vacuum to retain ink. (Even the production version of the 61 will simply drip its ink out if held nib downward without the barrel in place.)

Actus I (Scaena 1)

After the requisite trips back to the drawing board, the Parker 61 emerged as a remarkably well designed pen that wrote reliably and well, and had the potential to add luster to its corporate name. That it is remembered as one of Parker’s mistakes is not the fault of the pen itself; and in fact Parker continued selling capillary-filling 61s for 13 years, until public resistance to the pen’s need for a little extra care had increased to the level that justified a redesign. The 61 is a slightly upscale adaptation of the “51” design: a little slimmer, a little more streamlined. It retains the sculptured washer clip with its pearlescent gray cap jewel, and a metal arrow is inlaid into the shell just behind the nib. The arrow, a typical styling feature of the “jet-propelled” 1950s, serves a useful function by providing a visual guide to orienting the nib correctly on the paper.

The 61 prototype’s jointless barrel actually has a nearly invisible joint about 2/3 of the way from the nib to the back end. This joint was necessary for manufacture, but it was not intended that the user would disassemble the pen. The initial production version, which I call the Mark I, has a visible joint between the shell and the barrel. A very thin metal trim ring marks the location of this joint for the user:

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Parker 61 First Edition Heirloom

The thinness of the trim ring is a sign that something has changed in the design of the cap clutch since the heyday of the “51”. Instead of a clutch spring that bears on a sturdy stainless steel clutch ring, the 61 has a sensually smooth clutch; the cap’s clutch spring is like that of the “51” but now bears directly on the shell itself to hold the cap in place. The 61 caps and uncaps much more smoothly than its predecessor without sacrificing reliability.

Fountain pen cap Fountain pen cap

The first production units of the 61 were labeled First Edition, and these pens bear on their caps the tiny medallion visible between the clip and cap lip on the pen above (and shown enlarged at the top of this page). These plastic-bodied pens were available with Parker’s unusual Rainbow cap, in two color combinations:

In 1957, Parker added the the Legacy model, whose Rainbow cap was made of nickel and silver. Shown here are the Heirloom (near right) and Legacy (far right) caps. The nickel component of the Legacy’s cap is in very thin layers that are somewhat pitted and blackened; with a chrome-plated clip instead of gold, the monochromatic “pinstripe” color scheme — especially on a gray pen as shown here — is remarkably dignified and elegant, a distinct contrast to the chromatic brilliance of the Heirloom that it replaced.

Actus I (Scaena 2)

Between 1956 and 1962, additional models emerged with various cap styles of Lustraloy, polished stainless steel with and without gold-filled trim, and entirely gold filled:

Douglas DC-8New colors were added as well, and two all-metal versions (the stainless steel Flighter and the solid gold Presidential) appeared in 1959. The Flighter received a shiny new name; to keep up with the times, Parker redesignated it the Jet Flighter, and adver­tise­ments proclaimed how well it performed when tested in a sleek new DC-8, “eight miles up! Flashing along at 600 miles an hour…!”

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Parker 61 Mark I Standard, Grey
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Parker 61 Mark I Deluxe, Black

Actus II

The 61 Mark II appeared in 1962. This version’s cap is about 2 mm shorter than the first model’s cap, and the clutch now features four spring fingers emerging from around the edge of the inner cap and extending toward the cap lip. Unfortunately, this clutch can cause indentations in the shell on some pens. The barrel has a thicker trim ring, slightly concave in cross section, which solves the original thin trim ring’s problem of bending and possibly becoming loose enough to screw off the threaded ferrule connecting the shell and barrel:

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Parker 61 Mark II Classic, Vista Blue
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Parker 61 Mark II Jet Flighter

The Mark II is about 2 mm shorter than the Mark I.

Actus III

During the 1960s, as the pace of life picked up and competition from ballpoints and fiber-tip pens increased, taking care of pens became less important. The 61’s capillary filling system is very reliable but requires somewhat more frequent cleaning than other types of fillers — and, because it is a passive system that the user cannot flush simply by cycling it, 61s began to return to Parker in increasing numbers as their owners’ neglect resulted in clogged pens. Parker realized the eventual severity of the problem and responded by redesigning the filling system. In 1969, the 61 Mark III signaled the demise of Parker’s capillary filler. Outwardly almost the same as the Mark II, the Mark III is fitted with a cartridge/converter filling system.

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Parker 61 Mark III Custom, Rage Red
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Parker 61 Mark III Jet Flighter

The Mark III’s exterior differs from that of the Mark II in its cap design. Instead of the classic sculptured washer clip and gray jewel, the Mark III has a 75-style washer clip (inset into a notch in the cap) that is secured by a conical all-metal screw. This design is identical to that of the Mark III “51”, which appeared at the same time (and retained a squeeze filler that was no longer truly Aero-metric).

Actus IV

When it came to a desk-set version of the 61, the ’50s space-age design that Parker created for the pocket pen carried through with emphasis. This was the era of exotic antenna-like projections, fins, and bright metal. Instead of the long slim taper of earlier times, Parker drafted a short, almost stubby desk pen with a flashy tail end, and fitted it into a bright gold-plated trumpet magnetically pivoted on its base.

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desk set
 
Parker 61 Mark II desk pen and desk set

Exodium

As a group, collectors today are underwhelmed by the Parker 61. Many 61s seem not to write well, either because they haven’t been kept in good order or because they are adjusted to write dry (a common condition). A more serious detriment, however, is the polystyrene plastic that Parker used. Rather brittle and prone to crack if handled roughly, the barrel and shell of the 61 can be a source of annoyance and, with user pens, inky fingers. Last on the list of negatives is the shell’s arrow, which was inlaid into the shell by heat stamping and can fall out too easily.

On the other hand, there are a great number of really nice uncracked 61s around, and these pens can be tuned to write very well indeed. They are attractive and light in weight, ideal for day-long use and for carrying in cramped quarters such as a checkbook. And because they are undervalued in the marketplace, very good 61s can often be found at surprisingly low prices. Even a pen that writes unwillingly may be a good buy, given that most reluctant 61s can be encouraged to write much better merely by soaking and flushing them to clean out old dried ink.


61 Plastic Colors
Color Name (Years)

Surf Green Surf Green (U.S.A. and Canada only) (1956-1959)
Vista Blue Vista Blue (1956-1982)
Charcoal Charcoal (1956-1959)
Rage Red Rage Red (1956-1969)
Black Black (1956-1982)
Caribbean Green Caribbean Green (1959-1969)
Maroon Maroon (1959-1982)
Grey Grey (1959-1982)
Midnight Blue Midnight Blue (Mark III only) (1969-1982)

61 Metals
Finish Name

Stainless Steel (Flighter) Brushed Stainless Steel (Flighter)
Gold Filled (Signet), Gold (Presidential) Gold Filled (Signet), Gold (Presidential)

Notes:
  1. In the development process, Parker took out U.S. Patents Nos 2,462,929, 2,522,553, 2,522,554, 2,522,555, 2,554,654, 2,587,949, 2,648,309, 2,702,021, 2,774,332, 2,773,479, and 2,782,763, all related to capillary filling pens.

  2. The First Edition medallion may be, as Daniel Kirchheimer has suggested, the earliest example of a manufacturer’s attempting to capitalize on the cachet associated with its product’a potential value as a collectible as distinct from the its value in its nominally intended rôle.


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