Sheaffer’s Snorkel – the world’s most complicated filling system, ever?
Those were heady days. The post WWII boom – some call it the golden age of capitalism – was in full blast. Fountain pens too, were riding the crest, though the dark clouds of a ball point pen led calamity were palpably ominous to many a stalwart of the industry. The Parker 51, advertised as “The World’s Most Wanted Pen,” was firing all cylinders, though it was formally introduced almost a decade back in 1941. Yes, we are talking on the 1950’s.
Sheaffer’s needed a flagship – “Fat Boy” to unleash its destructive power, and in 1952, it came up with an offering, that has variously been considered as the world’s most complicated Fountain Pen. In its time, it certainly was, and many experts opine, it still is, in terms of the filling mechanism – the Snorkel.
Sheaffer’s had, predictably, unleashed an advertising blitz that pegged the snorkel as an instrument, filling which will be a clean, “dunk free” exercise. Famous actors, sportsmen and cartoonists were roped in to endorse the product and the results were, shall we say, encouraging? Sheaffer loyalists do claim that in certain markets and in certain periods of time, the Snorkel outsold its nemesis the Parker 51. Well, the Parker 51, just to set the records straight, remained in production till the early 1970’s while the Sheaffer’s Snorkel had a far shorter lifespan, production lifespan that is – reigning between 1952 and 1959. (Snorkels were made in the USA, the UK and in Australia. In Australia they may have been in production till as late as 1962, still).
The term lifespan needs to be highlighted, for most Sheaffer’s Snorkels came with the white dot, which was introduced in 1924, and whose original purpose was to indicate the fact that the pen had a lifetime guarantee. As a matter of fact, the white dot was widely advertised about, with Sheaffer’s claiming them to be hallmarks that communicated “unconditionally guaranteed for a lifetime”. The Sheaffer’s commitment, urging users to “identity the Lifetime pen by this white dot”, had its usual effect and by the time the Snorkel had appeared, the White Dot was already well entranced in the consumer psyche. The fact that the pens were examples of extremely robust designing, top of the line inputs and craftsmanship that had achieved the high-water mark can be established in just three words – mine writes beautifully.Well, a bit stiff, but beautifully none the less.
Yes, my Shaeaffer’s Snorkel writes beautifully, in all its regal wetness. Twist the knob at the bottom and the snorkel protrudes from under the nib. Dip it (the tube) in the ink – dunk it if you so prefer – and pull the rod out to draw in the ink. As the snorkel, the inking tube, is twisted back into the pen, it starts its celestial dance on paper. It had, and I can see every time I ink my Snorkel how, done away with the mess that dipping fountain pen nibs in the inkwell can create. It was meant for the connoisseurs of a time that preceded my birth, and I can only imagine, just how excited they must have been with the Snorkel. Suffice to say, the plunger works so smoothly and the ink fills up with such ceaseless abandon that I often wish that the pens that we have now, even the brand-new ones, were as seamlessly integrated as these ancient mariners are.
My Snorkel is the Triumph which was roughly made between 1955 and 1959. It is characterised by a 14 karat two tone gold nib with platinum mask, gold-filled cap. The barrel and cap have straight longitudinal engraved lines in a repeating pattern of five lines and a blank panel. It sports a gold-filled clip. It also has a spiral grip which is extremely user friendly and requires the least amount of pressure to do the bidding of my thoughts.
By introducing a number of colours, nib variations (there were as many as sixteen nib options – including, hold your breath, flexibles, accountant, shorthand, stubs, obliques and music) and cap choices, Shaffer’s had successfully created a range of models and colour combinations – perhaps they knew that one day, their intended flagship would become the rage of passionate pen collectors, as they are now. The bulk of Snorkel offerings were predictably injection moulded solid pastel colours with polished stainless steel and gold-plated caps adorning many models. In fact, there even was a clear demonstrator Snorkel, which was again, apparently, made for sales people to explain the working of the then revolutionary filling system.
Speaking of collect ability, all Snorkel models had matching pencils and ballpoints with the same trim. The pencil was redesigned in 1952 to a new, more slender style.The early ball point pen was a capped Stratowriter style pen, which was replaced around 1955 with a push button retractable model. The higher line pens and ensemble sets were packaged in attractive tan leatherette clam-shell boxes. Needless to say, the full set, with original box (and off course the user’s manual) is one hell of a prized item for any collector worth his ink stains.