Object lesson No 48

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Fourth sons of Swiss hat-makers may not seem destined for greatness. But 100 years ago Karl, child of Balthasar Elsener-Ott, was at the cutting edge. As the inventor of those famous red Swiss Army penknives he was to profit from people's love of gadgets.

In Elsener's pocket-sized world, you can solve all life's problems by selecting the right tool from your penknife. The choice is huge and includes toothpicks, nail files, chisels, pliers, and altimeters (available on the Classic Whistler knife, as is, of course, a whistle).

Gamekeepers presumably bless the wood saw tucked in next to the corkscrew on their Huntsman knife. The office worker, late at her desk, thanks heaven for the retractable pen and wire stripper in her Manager. Likewise, the businessman for the orange peeler in his Executive model and the golfer for her divot fixer.

It all started in 1891 after Elsener had returned home to Schwyz and formed the Swiss Cutlery Guild. The young man had learned his trade making razors and surgical instruments in France and Germany and now wanted to help local lads who were being forced to emigrate to find work. He persuaded the Swiss Army to stop buying knives from the Germans and give them a go instead.

Soon Elsener was making ingenios pocket knives and giving them names such as the Cadet and the Farmer. The first Soldier's knife was heavy, so he came up with a lighter model with two blades, can opener, screwdriver, corkscrew and awl. This Officer's knife was patented in 1897. (Most Swiss Army knives come with an unhealthy choice of ways to access alcohol - presumably the result of Elsener's dealings with the officer class.) Around that time, the Swiss Cutlery Guild became Victorinox - a play on Victoria, Karl's mother's name, and "inox". This was short for inoxidise, reflecting the fact that his steel knives would not rust.

Victorinox now employs 950 people and the Officer knife still cuts the mustard. There are 100 versions available, including the best-selling Champ (with fish scaler and hook disgorger). A Swiss Army knife is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and they have seen service with space-shuttle astronauts and Mount Everest climbers. There are versions for parachutists (sewing eye provided, presumably in case of nasty rips), explorers, picnickers, campers and boy scouts. Hikers are not forgotten, nor lumberjacks. All humanity is catered for, right down to the Cavalier, thoughtfully equipped with a cuticle pusher.

Stephanie Northen


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