Monday, September 15, 2014

What Might Have Been

One thing that I’ve found takes away a lot of pressure when I’m chasing these dumb pencils around is to think of a great pencil as being like a bus: when one comes around, if the time isn’t right or the fare is too high, you can always wait for the next one no matter how nice it is. They didn’t make just one, I’m always telling myself.

But every so often, something comes along and I know I’ve probably only got one shot to pull the trigger – and as was the case this time, I knew that in fact they probably did only make one. Well, two actually. Get a load of these:

When Stephen Mandel first showed me these at the Chicago Show last May, I was speechless. Stephen tells me they are reputed to have come directly from Parker, and while documentary provenance is lacking, after examining these I am firmly convinced these are actual prototypes of something that might have been but never was.

It’s hard to know where to begin, since I’ve never seen a Parker Vacumatic pencil that is anything remotely like these. Starting with the barrel, note that these have two joints towards the top and bottom end, rather than just one in the middle. Some later Moore pencils had something like this feature, but as you’ll see in a minute, this is no Moore inside. Also, neither barrel has any sort of imprint, which is also unlike any other Vacumatics I’ve seen. I was unable to remove the top portion on the red one (and I didn’t want to force it), while the silver one pulled off easily to expose the eraser:

The silver one is fitted with a "reverse trim" gold-filled upper band (silver Vac pencils would normally have had chrome-plated trim, so collectors refer to metal trim opposite the color you would expect to find as "reverse"). Note also the solder on the inner brass tube, suggesting that a thinner tube was affixed to create an extension for the eraser.

And speaking of bands, check out those lower ones. Vacumatic-band pencils – "normal" middle joint twist action examples, that is – command very high prices, usually north of $500.00. Before these two came along, I’ve never had the privilege of owning even one, but believe it or not, the fact that these have Vac bands is not what’s really interesting here. Let’s start with the red example

Until I had these pictures blown up on my computer screen, I thought this band was entirely made of brass, with the high points being worn shiny. But if you look closely, you will notice that’s not what is going on here: the high points have actually been gold filled. Parker was experimenting with two-tone Vacumatic bands! The two-tone is even more apparent on the silver example, but with a different twist:

On this one, the band started as a plain gold-filled band over a white metal, and under magnification it’s easy to see that the relief was carved away by hand to expose the white metal underneath.

Now if you are a Parker pencil enthusiast, what I’ve shown you so far should be enough to blow your mind – but I haven’t even shown you the most fascinating part of this pair yet! Hold onto your hats as we pull the nose off of the red example:

I’ve never seen anything like this – not just on a Parker pencil, but on any pencil. The usual propel-repel mechanism you would expect to see isn’t here: the nose is held onto the barrel by friction, and that aggressively threaded brass section rotates to advance the mechanism inside. Note also that the metal tip holds the lead in place by friction, with two relief slots cut into it in order to give the tip just enough flex to allow the lead to pass through. Since the lead is held in place by friction, that means in order to retract the lead, you turn the mechanism back a bit and then push the lead back in with a finger or by pushing the tip down against a hard surface. This thing works almost like an Autopoint!

The silver example has the same mechanism inside, but there are a couple differences:

First, the tip has three relief slots cut into it rather than two. Also, note that while the red example has the Vacumatic band affixed to the nose, the silver one has the band affixed to the barrel.

Judging from the way these two pencils are put together, it looks to me like the red example was an earlier attempt, since the parts fit together a little better on the silver example. There’s no question in my mind, with these unique mechanisms and hand-carved, two-tone Vacumatic bands, that these were created in Parker’s workshops.

At the time these were made, sometime in the mid-1930s, the company must have been weighing two options: going big or going home. On one hand, Parker could invest in the machinery to roll out new and radically different pencils to complement their new and radically different Vacumatic pens. On the other, Parker could conserve its resources for the production of fountain pens and find simpler and cheaper ways to turn out conventional pencils to match them.

Parker went home. It was during the Vacumatic era that the company decided to outsource the production of its pencil mechanisms entirely, contracting with the A.T. Cross Company to supply the company with conventional screw-drive mechanisms that were used, with only minor modifications, for the next fifty years. Unless you count the Liquid Lead pencil (essentially a graphite-paste ballpoint pen) as a pencil, Parker gave up the business of coming up with new pencil designs around the time these were made.

Leaving these two pencils – and maybe only these two – as a memorial to what might have been.


Michael Quitt said...

These are stunning!! Thanks for posting the pics. I've never seen anything like them.
Michael Quitt

Jon Messer said...


Now... the hunt for more...?