Monday, September 22, 2014

Occam Needs a Shave

One of the best parts of corresponding with my fellow enthusiasts is adding to my vocabulary, as was the case a while ago, when during an email chat with Roger Wooten he indicated that I was using "Occam’s Razor."

One of the best parts of corresponding with my fellow enthusiasts by email, rather than face-to-face, was that Roger could not see the blank expression on the face of a man who had absolutely no idea what Occam’s Razor was. I’m so much cooler online, as the song goes.

So I gave Roger the binary equivalent of a sage nod while simultaneously I researched this mysterious razor – and found that it was in fact a tool I had been carrying with me for years yet never knew what it was called. Occam’s Razor isn’t a physical tool, but an analytical one attributed to the medieval philosopher William of Occam that one should make only those assumptions that are necessary. Boiled down, Occam’s "razor" slices away unnecessary assumptions and leaves the simplest answer to a problem.

That means I know exactly what Occam would think of this one:

I like to think Occam might have gulped and said "Wow, that’s a big honkin’ burgundy Vacumatic pencil," but I doubt he would have been so impressed. Nevertheless, big honkin’ and burgundy would be accurate, as this one measures 5 1/4 inches stem to stern and is a bit bigger around than one usually sees. It’s at the top end where Occam would take issue:

That "split arrow" clip (the vertical word "Parker" divides the arrows) and that clearish plastic jewel aren’t what you would normally expect to find on a Parker Vacumatic; however, they are exactly what you would find on a Parker 51. I’m hearing Occam warming up his strop and I know that the simple answer is that since the clip and jewel are interchangeable between the Vacumatic and the 51, someone has replaced a missing clip and jewel with the wrong parts.

However . . . lest we be too quick to cut and cut to the quick . . .

1. Note the patina; if it’s been replaced, it’s been replaced for a long, long time.

2. Note the date code:

That "0" surrounded by three dots at the end of the imprint signifies the first quarter of 1940 (Parker would start each year using a date stamp with three bumps around it, then remove a bump as each quarter passed so that a fourth quarter pencil would have no dots around the number). The Parker 51 was test marketed overseas in 1939 (the 51st year of Parker’s existence), then formally introduced here in the States during 1941.

3. Note the one unusual feature on the lower barrel, opposite the imprint:

"Demonstrator." Why the lower barrel is imprinted with this word is a mystery to me: there’s nothing cut away to show the inner workings of the pencil, nor is anything transparent. The only thing demonstrative about this pencil is that it works just like any other example.

So I’ve got to ignore my good friend Occam for a minute, and ask myself not what (a Vacumatic pencil with what appears to be a 51 clip and jewel) but what if. What if this was deliberately assembled this way in 1940, before the 51 was introduced here in the states?

There's a flaw here, that David Nishimura pointed out:  when the 51 was first introduced, the jewels on the 51s were aluminum rather than this cloudy plastic variety, and he suggests that the clip appears from the patina to be a wartime clip, produced a few years after 1940 -- assuming that there were no plastic jewels or clips like this in 1940, then the theory that it was built this way from the outset isn't consistent with this possibility.  That is an assumption, however, that the clip and jewel did not exist at all in 1940, not only that they were not used on the 51 at the time.

What purpose would this configuration serve?   One thing is obvious: at a pen counter with dozens of Parker Vacumatics, it would be much easier to see which of the pencils is the "Demonstrator" with this clip and jewel. Maybe Parker fitted "Demonstrator" pencils this way for that reason – or an enterprising shopkeeper saved himeslf some time making the switch once the 51 was introduced in the States the year after this pencil was made. Maybe Parker was playing around with the idea of using the new 51 clips and jewels across its entire line.  Maybe as a demonstrator, this pencil was actually put together later than 1940.

There’s no room for these maybes in Occam’s world. Occam wouldn’t be looking for documentation to support any of these possibilities, and Occam wouldn’t have written this article.

Occam is no fun.


Joe Nemecek said...

Seems to me that Occam does exhaust opportunity. Nice article.

Michael McNeil said...

We really don't know when Parker was experimenting with the silver plastic jewels. The clips with silver being used as a base metal and the gold outer layer, that was heavily alloyed with silver, probably was not produced until after the second world war started and metals were restricted. The pen companies could get all the gold and silver they needed, but not other metals, such as brass, aluminum and so forth. The blue diamond clips were produced as early as late '38 or '39, but used a brass alloy base metal. The silver colored plastic jewels were mounted on 51's sometime in 1942, around the same time that they switched from the Speedline fillers, to the "disposable" fillers with plastic plunger rods.

I think there is a possibility that you guys might not have considered. Parker was pressed for producing writing instruments during the war, as they, and the other pen companies, were producing things other than pens and pencils for the "war effort". They may have wanted to get some demonstrator pencils out to their sales reps and dealers. I would imagine they had pen and pencil back stock parts and maybe nearly complete pencils that were made a few years before, for repairs and replacement parts, that were the same as current production, bands, colors, even the clips. The pencils being sold didn't have the blue diamond, no biggie, the demonstrator pencils were not intended for public consumption anyway. I think your pencil could very well have come from the factory as you found it, during world war two, when the silver based clips and silver colored plastic jewels were being produced.

I have found a number of Parker Streamline Duofold fountain pens with 1940's date codes on the barrels and clips that the base metal was indeed silver, but otherwise looked identical to the Duofolds from 1929 to 34. They were made to meet the demand of dealers and ultimately their customers.

I would like to see what Occam would think of my Norelco electric razor ;-)

Michael McNeil