The Parker 51 fountain pen was initially launched in 1941. Its design was finalised in 1939, Parker's 51st year of operating, from where its name is thought to have come, although early advertising suggested that it was called the '51' to indicate that it was 10 years ahead of its time. Nothing to do with Area 51, despite the fact that it was so completely different from what had been seen before, it was described as the 'pen from another planet’!
It was considered different for a number of reasons. Firstly, it had a rather sleek and sassy hooded nib, not something that was common in the middle of the last century - and indeed not particularly so even now. Its profile was smooth and streamlined, less rounded and curvy than a more traditionally-styled pen, and was said to mirror the P-51 Mustang fighter plane (another possible origin for its name). It was also the first time that Parker had called a product by a number, and proved the ideal solution to problems posed by translation into other languages.
The advertising of the time encouraged users to fill it with Parker's newly-formulated quick-drying '51' ink: the pen was ideal for the ink, and the ink was ideal for the pen. The hooded nib enabled the ink to stay wet while the user was writing, yet dry quickly once on paper, and the feed was designed so that ink flowed when the user needed it to, and didn't carry on regardless afterwards! Its appeal lay not only in its 'other-worldly' appearance, but also in its ease of use, ensuring that - unlike many fountain pens - it could compete with the newly-invented upstart - the ballpoint pen.
Production of the Parker 51 continued for almost 40 years, until it was discontinued in 1978, but - 80 years after the first Parker 51s surprised the market - now it's back, and it's been tweaked and refined and 21st century-fied, but - thankfully - not in a 'oh dear...' kind of way. It's not hugely different to the original. It's just been kitted out with a few modern refinements to ensure its appeal to 21st century users.
So what hasn't changed? Well, it's still got a hooded nib; it's an iconic part of its design, after all. It's also still got the cap jewel but with an upgrade from plastic to palladium (which is gold-plated in the premium versions). And the barrel is still made of resin, a durable, very sensible material for a pen. If it ain't broke, why fix it?
What has changed is that the 21st century model is a little (a very little) shorter than the original: uncapped it's 120mm as opposed to the original 126mm. It also has a screw-on cap, which ensures better protection for the nib and helps prevent the ink from drying out. And the clip - while still the familiar Parker arrow design - is a little longer, to harmonise with other Parker ranges. The filling system is also now the most convenient possible: it will take both standard-pattern ink cartridges and a converter, so the user has the best of both worlds. Ink cartridges are widely-available, easy to use and very portable; while a converter allows the use of bottled ink, ensuring access not only to a huge range of colours, but also different types of ink.
As for colours, well, the original Parker 51 was available in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of shades, which - as you'd expect - changed as fashions and demand dictated. Rather than introduce new colours, Parker have used six iconic finishes that have been crowd-pleasers not just for the Parker 51 but for all of their collections. Consequently, these new babies are available in black, with either chrome or gold-plate; midnight blue, burgundy and teal with chrome; and plum with gold-plate. Also - unlike the 1940s - there are matching ballpoints. No hooded nibs here, just wonderfully-smooth twist-retract mechanisms instead.
And that's it, really. Enough to excite, and certainly nothing to disappoint.
7 February 2021