The Swiss Army Knife
Swiss Army Knife – flagship model SwissChamp
The Swiss Army Knife is produced by two Swiss companies, Victorinox and Wenger, and dates back to about 1891. 19th century Switzerland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, and yet the knife has survived to become synonymous with the excellence of modern Swiss craftsmanship.
A brief history of the Swiss Army Knife
Karl Elsener, a Swiss cutler, wanted to create jobs but could not afford to build a factory, so he founded the Swiss Cutlers' Association. His intention was that cutlers would cooperate to produce, within Switzerland, standard issue knives for the Swiss Army. The army had introduced introduced a new rifle which required a screwdriver for its maintenance, so the knives included one, with a can-opener and reamer thrown in for good measure.
25 cutlers participated but after a year or so the venture collapsed because Swiss craftsmen couldn't compete with industrialised factories in Germany. Elsener persevered and produced an unofficial "Officer's Knife" which was lighter and had more functions than the official army "Soldier's Knife". He legally registered the "Officer's and Sports Knife" in 1897 and began to achieve success when army officers bought the knife for themselves in cutlery shops.
Victorinox (founded by Elsener) and Wenger (originally Paul Boechat & Cie), based in different cantons of the country, were both awarded contracts for supplying knives to the Swiss army to minimise friction between the French and German-speaking parts of the country, and to promote competition. Victorinox knives are now identified as 'The Original Swiss Army Knife' while the Wenger ones are labelled 'The Genuine Swiss Army Knife'.
Worldwide distribution of the Swiss Army Knife was stimulated by World War II, when they were available in American PX stores and became popular with the American GI, to whom they were known as the known as the "survival knife". Victorinox (which has taken over Wenger) still supplies some 50,000 knives to the Swiss army each year, and produces 30-odd thousand Swiss Army Knives per day in over 100 different models.
Facts about the Swiss Army Knife
One of the reasons for the lightness and elegance of the Swiss Army Knife is that it makes multiple use of each spring – typically six blades on only two springs. The knife's cutting blades are made from a special blade steel with a Rockwell C (unit of hardness) of 56. The saws, scissors, and files have a hardness of RC 53, tin openers and reamers have RC 52, and corkscrews and springs have RC 49. The internal separating strips are made from aluminium alloy (to make them light), and the rivets and bushings are made of brass.
The springs press on the various tools with different degrees of force. The large and small blades are pressed into place with a force of 12 kg and 8 kg respectively. The total force of 20 kg presses on the corkscrew. With 2 springs and 6 pressure points the total spring pressure is 70 kg – apparently it's all a matter of leverage ratios and axes. The open screwdriver is under even more spring pressure, with its facing edge behind the knife's axis to prevent it from snapping shut when in heavy use. These high spring pressures remain the same after many years of use, as evidenced by the loudness of the clicking sound each time a tool is opened or closed.
Contrary to popular belief, officers in the Swiss army don't receive the model with the red plastic handle. All members of the army are given the standard issue in anodized aluminium at the start of their military career, and keep it when advancing through the ranks. Incidentally, all able-bodied Swiss males aged between 20 and 30 must serve in the army for 260 days, and most are subsequently assigned to civil protection duties until the age of 37.
The New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich have selected the Swiss Army Knife for their collections of excellence in design.
[ First published August 21st, 2005 ]