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Page last updated at 02:58 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 03:58 UK

From humble tool to global icon

Swiss Army knife
The knife, designed for use by Swiss soldiers, is now universally popular

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

In Switzerland, there is a saying that every good Swiss citizen has one in his or her pocket.

It is an object that is recognised all over the world, and it is globally popular.

But the Swiss army knife had humble beginnings, and, at the start, it wasn't even red.

In the late 19th Century, the Swiss army issued its soldiers with a gun which required a special screwdriver to dismantle and clean it.

Carl Elsener senior
Carl Elsener senior came up with the knife's original simple design

At the same time, tinned food was becoming common in army rations. Swiss generals decided to issue each soldier with a standard knife.

It was a life-saver for Swiss knife makers, who were, at the time, struggling to compete with cheaper German imports.

"My great-grandfather started a small business in 1884, 125 years ago," explains Carl Elsener, head of the Swiss knife manufacturer Victorinox.

"He was making knives for farmers, for in the kitchen and so on, and then he heard that the Swiss army wanted a knife for every Swiss soldier."

Carl Elsener senior seized that opportunity with both hands, and designed a knife that the army loved.

"It was a very simple thing," explains his great-grandson. "It had a black handle, one big blade, a tin opener and a screwdriver."

Global cult object

Now, to mark the 125th anniversary, that first knife is on display at an exhibition at the Forum for Swiss History, together with hundreds of other Swiss army knives.

"The thing about the army knife is that it really has become a kind of global cult object," says Pia Schubiger, curator of the museum. "Everyone seems to have one, lots of people even have collections of them, and we wanted to explore this phenomenon."

Exhibits include the "Schweizer Offizier Messer", or Swiss Officer's Knife, which came on the market a few years after the soldier's knife.

The original Swiss army knife, with its one blade
The very first knife was designed to dismantle guns and open tinned food

A more elegant design, it included a corkscrew and a pair of scissors.

Interestingly, the officer's knife was never issued to those serving in the army. The Swiss military purchasers considered the corkscrew not "essential for survival", and so officers had to buy this knife individually.

But it was this design, says Carl Elsener, which launched the knife as a global brand.

"After the Second World War, Europe was full of American soldiers," he explains. "And as they could buy the Swiss army knife at PX stores (shops on military bases), they bought huge quantities of them."

"But it seems "Schweizer Offizier Messer" was too difficult for them to say, so they just called it the Swiss army knife, and that is the name it is now known by all over the world."

Prototypes

Today, there seems to be a knife for every kind of activity. There are knives with altimeters for mountaineers and knives for anglers with special tools to get hooks out of the mouths of fish.

But not every prototype proved successful, and some of these are on display as well, including a knife with a pencil sharpener. It made an ugly bulge at one end of the knife, and was eventually rejected.

The Swiss army knife with 314 blades
The knife with 314 blades is in the Guinness Book of Records

Then there is the knife with a special blade for cutting cheese in precise slices of exactly the same shape and thickness. It seems that even in Switzerland, there was not enough of a market for this one.

And in pride of place, there is the knife which no-one will ever put in their pocket, but which has an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. With 314 blades, it is the world's biggest penknife.

Visitors also have the chance to make their own knives - a basic design, including the ever popular corkscrew, bottle opener, tweezers, toothpick and screwdriver.

Space shuttle

Master knife makers can put one together in less than two minutes, but for amateurs it takes much more time, patience, and a very steady hand. Nevertheless, visitors to the exhibition are queuing up to try.

It is a sign of just how successful the idea has become, despite one or two false starts, like the cheese blade.

The Swiss army knife has even been into space with the crew of the space shuttle.

And an oversized copy is on display in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Its original designer probably never dreamt of such attention.

"I do not expect my great-grandfather ever had the idea that the Swiss army knife would be popular over the whole world, and become a symbol for Swiss quality and reliability," says Carl Elsener.

"I think for him his vision was, in his small workshop, to manufacture a knife for the Swiss army."


Here is a selection of your emails:

I had the big Swiss Army in Liberia in 1964. Living in the bush it was a useful thing to have in my pocket. My Jeep broke down so I called Monrovia on the 2-way. A technician at AID talked be through a tune up of the Jeep, when I got to filing the points it was clear this Swiss Army was more than OK. Using many of the tools of the knife got my Jeep back on the road.
Andy Hanson, Aspen, Co USA

Yes, they are still legal to carry every day. Precis of the current UK law: If the edge (note edge, not the whole blade) length is 3" or less, and the blade folds into the handle & does not lock open (ie it's a traditional pocket knife, SAK or otherwise) then it is legal to have it on your person.
Matthew Russell, Elanora, Australia

I had one when I visited Geneva, Switzerland in the 1980s. A friend was so attracted by its usefulness he begged me to give it to him. I had to surrender that Swiss Army Knife to him. Now I see a lot of copy cats, mainly Chinese makes in the shops around in my country!!
Mr. Oyay Papiti Ajack, Khartoum - Sudan

Have had too many stolen. Gave up on using them because they lack a lock on blade, so too unsafe for an engineer getting old and losing his dexterity.
Fletcher Hanks, Oxford USA

While driving a taxi, one night two scruffins informed me they had a 9mm S&W and were about to rob me with it and what did I think? They placed the gun on the lap of the guy in front. I reached down my left side with my right hand where my open large switch type blade was and I said "I would pull out my 357 magnum (using the knife to emulate the gun), turn around and blow your brains out the back windshield. They looked real startled, tossed me a bunch of money and ran away fast, looking over their shoulders as they ran away. Honest truth.
Gordon Roth, Creston BC Canada

Whilst climbing in Lugnaquilla, Wicklow my Swiss got me out of a sticky situation involving my climbing rope, carabiner and foot. Pretty much saved my life.
Eoin, Dublin, Ireland

I was carrying mine when in college and was on a double date. Something happened with the car and the fellows needed a screwdriver. Well, this girl and her screwdriver saved the day. They were amazed that I had one to begin with.
Barbara Zarrella, Port Saint Lucie, Florida, USA

I have had several SAK over the past 40 years and have used them daily and have taken them always on trips and to two wars! Once I nearly cried in Kathmandu when a security officer took mine for safekeeping before boarding a flight to Lukla. I argued: What if we crash and I do not have it? The pilot, a Swiss, smiled and intervened on my behalf and invited me to sit up front next to him. Wow, that was close!
Eliot Pearlman, Kyiv Ukraine

I always have my Swiss army knife to hand, except when I need it most when travelling! Will the hysteria over airport security ever go back to a stage where a simple tool that serves less practical purpose as a weapon than the hands of someone who is well trained be allowed back on a plane? Like other commentators I have lost track of the repairs and fixes made with it... opened a box with it this morning for a start.
Paul White, Wokingham, Berkshire

While travelling in the UK we stopped at a B&B. The door bell when pressed would not turn off and the woman who ran the B&B could not fix it. I removed the button with the screw driver cleaned the contacts with the file and did the same for the bell. These knives have gotten me out of more jams and helped others more times than I can remember.
Roy Lindbom, Fort Myers, USA

I always carry mine. I was out walking in remote countryside one very hot summer's day and discovered a deer with its antlers entwined in nylon mesh fencing. The velvet was torn and bleeding and infested with flies. The animal was in some distress. My husband approached the deer and held it firmly - it did not struggle. I cut the mesh away, my husband released the deer and it ran to the top of a small nearby hillock where it paused and looked at us, as if to say thank you, before disappearing. After that incident, I always carry it.
Jill, Verwood, England

I always carry my SAK. The most frequent "emergency" situation it helps with is getting other people's trapped cash cards out of ATMs - three times so far. I have also used it to reattach a cyclist's pedal to her bike, by whittling an ad-hoc alum key from a piece of roadside rubbish. It's indispensable and I wouldn't be without one.
Oscar Franklin, London

I have two and the old penknife of my grandfather. I've used them for a thousand household and roadside repairs, not to mention filing finger nails and extracting splinters! But does the law still allow me to keep one in my pocket?
Wolfie Peters, Birmingham, UK

Of course I have had a Swiss army knife for the last 40 years. I have used it to repair an aircraft in the bush in Africa (throttle linkage came adrift). I used it to solder a leak in a Land Rover radiator (heated the blade tip red hot). I could fill a book with its uses. And I still have the knife in my pocket right now. Look!!
Richard Palmer, Essen, Germany

I bought the Swiss army knife in 1989 in Samoa and it has always been the first tool to use when i need a scewdriver or scissors even a file,it has remained in good condition throughout this period.
Milton M. Mokah, Nairobi, Kenya

My father bought me my first knife forty years ago - a humble Swiss Army with one blade, a screwdriver & scissors. I used it for years until snapping the blade whilst levering up a floorboard! Undaunted, I returned it to Switzerland for repair - unfortunately it was lost in the system and Victorinox sent me a much more expensive replacement as compensation. Four months later, my original knife popped through the letter box, resplendent with brand new internals. It brought a tear to my eye. Great knife from a great company.
Tristan Martens

I have a Swiss army which I always take with me when I travel. But since strict security laws were put in place after 9/11, I don't take it with me on my person as I would end up having it confisicated by airport security. A shame really as the scissors and little knife is useful for opening packets, wrapping and just about anything on a plane.
Brenda Lyall, Aberdeen

In the 1980s, I was working in the USSR. One trip involved shipping in several thousand dollars' worth of computer equipment. We got as far as Customs in Moscow Airport where we were met by a young lad whose favourite word (perhaps his only word) was "niet". After much standing around, the "import duty" was agreed and we were on our way. The cost? One Swiss Army knife.
Mark, London

I have had many Swiss army knives and carried them with me at all times. However since airport security tightened I seem to have donated at least six knives which commemorated various engineering projects or were presents from vendors into the security companies' hands. So now I don't carry the knife and have to borrow from the Hotel / vendor the tools that previously I had to hand. Where did all those Swiss Army knives go?
Carolynn, Den Haag, Holland



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