Swiss army knife's history

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KATY CLARK: Our next story pays tribute to a global icon. The Swiss Army knife has been around for over a century. It's popularity all around the world has made it into one of Switzerland's most successful brands ever. A museum in central Switzerland created an exhibit that charts the knife's development. It's an interactive exhibit, as the BBC's Imogen Foulkes found out.

IMOGEN FOULKES: Make your own Swiss Army knife. Who could resist such a challenge? Not many, judging by the ue for the new exhibition forum for Swiss history. �What can I choose from? I can have a corkscrew, I can have a bottle opener.� It's curator is Pierre Schubiger.

PIERRE SCHUBIGER: Well, the army knife has really become a cult object. Everyone here knows it. Every Swiss has a pocketknife and the phenomenon interested us. We wanted to know how this cult came about.

FOULKES: The Swiss Army knife had very humble origins, as Karl Elsner, of knife maker Victorinox, explains.

KARL ELSNER: My great-grandfather started this business in 1884 here in a small village called Ipoch. He was manufacturing different knives for kitchen, also for farmers and for schoolboys and so on. And then he learned the Swiss Army had decided to buy a knife for every soldier.

FOULKES: Karl Elsner, Sr., seized the opportunity, designing a simple soldier's knife which the Army loved.

ELSNER: It has a screwdriver for cleaning the gun. It has a can opener, a large blade. This soldier knife was a little bit heavy and bulky, and for this reason, the founder of our company decided to create a new knife, more elegant with additional features. One of them, of course, was the corkscrew, and he called his knife "Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser".

FOULKES: The Swiss Officers knife?

ELSNER: Yes. The Swiss Officers and Sports knife.

FOULKES: Officers drank wine. That's my assumption.

ELSNER: Yes, exactly. After the Second World War, all the soldiers in Europe bought this knife in huge quantities. And they � for them it was too difficult to pronounceSchweizer Offiziersmesser, so they just called it �Swiss Army knife�, under the name which it is known today all over the world.

FOULKES: Meanwhile, to comfort downhearted novice knife makers, Urs Visk can show of some designs that never got off the production line.

VISK: This one here, the big one, is a special blade to cut cheese in always the same dimension, the slices. And it's a good thing it's not necessary. You can also cut cheese here just with the blade.

FOULKES: So there are not enough people who need cheese of exactly the same size?

VISK: Yes.

FOULKES: Not even in Switzerland?

VISK: Yes, not even in Switzerland.

FOULKES: Despite two false starts like the cheese blade, the Swiss has become an enormously successful brand. Many armies around the world have used a version of it. It's standard issue for the crew of the Space Shuttle, and it's even displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

VISK: And then at last, at the end, you put also into the handle, a toothpick.

FOULKES: Complete at last, my own self-assembled Swiss Army knife. Or to be brutally honest, a corkscrew with a toothpick.

CLARK: The BBC's Imogen Foulkes reporting from central Switzerland.