When Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his commander reached the Mir space station on the space shuttle Atlantis, they ran into a problem. The two could not open the hatch through which they were supposed to enter the station. The door was locked too tight. “We broke into the Mir using a Swiss army knife,” Hadfield later explained. Then he gave a tip about the Swiss Army Knife: “Never leave the planet without one.” It goes without saying that the Swiss Army Knife is now part of the equipment for astronauts of the US space agency Nasa.
The dizzying anecdote from November 1995 is one of the many almost unbelievable stories that have grown up around the Swiss Army Knife. The small instrument not only enjoys cult status among astronauts, but also among millions of other people around the world.
Few other products can compete with the “Swiss Army Knife” in terms of popularity, uniqueness, usefulness and multifunctionality. The folding device even made it into a number of museums, for example the New York Museum of Modern Art. It almost seems as if that image of the precision-loving Swiss who always wants to deliver perfect work was also created by the pocket knife.
This Sunday the fans are celebrating the birthday of the Swiss icon. Exactly 125 years ago, on June 12, 1897, the Swiss Karl Elsener had his “officer’s and sports knife” protected by law. The elegant tool, specially designed for the Swiss Army’s command personnel, was even equipped with a corkscrew. The officers were always able to enjoy a fine drop, whether in the barracks or in the field. Other armies are now having their soldiers equipped with Swiss knives. Incidentally, the Swiss armed forces no longer have an “officer’s knife”. All uniformed receive the same model.
The invention brought the cutler Elsener from Ibach in the canton of Schwyz unlimited fame and a flourishing company: Victorinox, which his family still controls and owns today – in the fourth generation. The three successors of Karl Elsener were and are called Carl Elsener.
2,100 people work for the group worldwide. Victorinox manufactures 45,000 pocket knives and pocket tools every day, putting the Swiss at the top of the world market. At the beginning of March, however, one sales market was lost: Russia. Like many other Swiss companies, Victorinox withdrew from the empire of wartime President Vladimir Putin.
In the Victorinox range, customers will also find household and professional knives, watches, luggage and perfumes. But the core of the business, which generates annual sales of around 400 million euros, remains the cutting tools. “You probably know the basic functions of our pocket knives,” says Claudia Mader-Adams, spokeswoman for Victorinox, and lists: “Blade, can opener, bottle opener, screwdriver, corkscrew, tweezers and toothpick.” The handy devices also offer a wood saw, scissors and Allen key. “And did you know that some of our pocket knives also serve completely different purposes?” asks the spokeswoman. “For example, you can use it to strip a wire. If you want to be very precise, the integrated magnifying glass supports you.” The top model “Swiss Champ” even combines 33 functions. It consists of 64 individual parts and goes through 450 work steps during production.
However, it is no longer possible to determine exactly which model a doctor used for an emergency operation on a domestic flight in India. A child had swallowed a candy and threatened to choke on it. Medical surgical instruments were on board, but not the right ones. The doctor received a pocket knife from a passenger. With that he performed a tracheotomy. The child survived.
It all began in 1884. Elsener founded a workshop for cutlers in Ibach, where the company is still based. His mother Victoria supported him with devotion. In memory of her, Elsener chose her first name Victoria as the brand name and also had the emblem with the cross and shield protected by law.
Today it is registered as a trademark in over 120 countries. The invention of stainless steel, Inox, in 1921 was a giant leap forward for cutlers.
The words “Victoria” and “Inox” were merged into the brand name. In 1931, the world’s first all-electric hardening shop was set up in Ibach. “This ensures that all knives are of consistently high quality,” says Victorinox.
The Second World War also had consequences for the company from neutral Switzerland – positive ones at that. US soldiers stationed in Europe bought folding knives from the Alpine country in bulk and really popularized them in their home country. As a result, Victorinox expanded globally, and the cutting tools are even very popular in distant Japan.
The Elseners passed another milestone in 2005. They took over the old Swiss rival Wenger, but the cutlery from Delsberg in the canton of Jura remained an independent Victorinox brand until 2013. Since then, all Swiss army knives have come from the Victorinox network. Previously, Victorinox and Wenger had supplied the army partly together and partly alternately. A typically Swiss compromise. As practical as the pocket knife.