The well-known Swiss Army Knife, however, subverted the tool logic of the knife by incorporating attachments that give the owner specifically designed implements for other potentially punishing uses. This knife is considered one of the first pocket-sized multipurpose tools.

Karl Elsener (1860-1918), a Swiss cutler from Ibach-Schwyz, who learned his trade through apprenticeships in Paris and the German city of Tuttlingen, was first to develop what we now call the Swiss Army Knife.

Elsener’s apprenticeship in Germany exposed him to the finest surgical-grade instruments as well as earlier German multipurpose military folding knives manufactured in Solingen (some for the Swiss army).

Elsener and his family were manufacturing cutlery by 1884 and in 1891 Karl Elsener Messer-Fabrik won a defence contract to supply the Swiss Army with a folding multipurpose knife with a metal-coloured cover that contained four tools: knife blade, can opener, punch, and screwdriver for slot-headed screws.

The current (2007) metal-coloured model for the Swiss army includes a knife blade, bottle and can opener, two screwdrivers and a wire stripper.

A metal-handled officer’s knife developed by Karl Elsener Messer-Fabrik in 1897 contained two cutting blades, can opener, slot-headed screwdriver, punch and, most importantly, a corkscrew.

Elsener protected his officer’s knife by registering a patent for this design in the same year of its release. By 1909, Elsener’s firm had been renamed Victoria and some models of its Swiss Army Knife carried the well-known shield on their red fibre composite cover. The white cross was derived from the Swiss national flag.

Not content to risk placing its military orders with a single supplier, the Swiss army also placed knife requisitions with several other Swiss manufacturers, amongst them a firm later known as Wenger, in Delémont-Jura, Switzerland. In the years to follow, Victoria and Wenger would make competing claims about the originality of their Swiss Army Knife designs.

Further 20th-century innovations in the Victorinox and Wenger knives included the use of stainless steel (inox), a steel alloy with a high chromium content that resists conventional corrosion and allows a durable high-polish surface. Following the introduction of stainless steel in 1921, the Victoria brand of the Swiss Army Knife was altered to Victorinox.

By the second half of the 20th century, the Swiss Army Knife was selling internationally to civilians as well as to the German army (with a German eagle rather than the original Swiss logo).

By the 1980s, the Swiss Army name had been registered as a trademark. A very successful diversification of Swiss Army Knife product design followed, with watches, luggage, clothing and, most recently, a Swiss Army–branded fragrance.

Following the success of the brand launch, the trademark holder agreed to pay royalties to the Swiss military for the use of their name.

Product diversification was timely as the multipurpose tool market was now crowded with inventive competitors including well-known tool and cutlery manufacturers such as Schrade, Gerber, Leatherman, Buck (under licence from Wenger) and Winchester.

Most of these new products took a precision-instrument, industrial-design approach to their respective products. Victorinox now competes with these high-tech multipurpose tools with their SwissTool.

Claims for originality were not resolved until 1993 when a trademark infringement case was filed in the USA against a company manufacturing a copy of the Swiss Army Knife.

As part of the settlement against the infringing party, Victorinox and Wenger agreed on specific terminology to identify their respective products. Victorinox would use the term “Original Swiss Army Knife”, while Wenger would use “Genuine Swiss Army Knife.” It was a semantic settlement.

After September 2001, sales of the Swiss Army Knife were decimated by the terrorist strike on the World Trade Centre in New York City. Heightened security at airport checkpoints (domestic and international) meant that passenger knives were confiscated and destroyed.

Sales of the Swiss Army Knife dropped forty per cent within a few months. By 2002, Wenger was in financial trouble; it was acquired by Victorinox in 2005.

Although the Swiss Army Knife brand has diversified into other product lines, the knife remains the flagship product. The knives, including a range of domestic cutlery, continue to be made in Switzerland.

The multipurpose Swiss Army Knife now contains such innovations as folding 2GB memory stick, LED lighting devices and laser pointers. In 2008, a bewildering catalogue of Swiss Army Knife models, now described as ‘multi-tools’, is available.

A Porsche Design multi-tool manufactured by Wenger is a recent innovation. The top-of-the-range Swiss Army Knife (weighing 1.3 kg and 230 mm wide) holds the 2008 Guinness Book of Records world record for the most functions (87) found in a penknife. 

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