CLOSE
Original image

10 Stainless Steel, Spring-Loaded Things You Should Know About the Swiss Army Knife (Now With a Corkscrew!)

Original image

Image credit: Flickr user AJ Cann

Pocket-sized multitools are a dime a dozen, but the Swiss Army Knife is an icon. Its name is shorthand for versatility and its cross-emblazoned red handle has gone to the North Pole, to the top of Mount Everest, to the depths of the Amazon, and even orbited around Earth on the space shuttle. On the tamer side, the knife is also admired for its design and is displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich.

I've had a lot of knives in my day, but only recently got my first Swiss Army Knife as a gift. I'm endlessly fascinated by it and have been reading up on its history, so here are ten bits of trivia I just had to share.

1. The Swiss Army Knife has very humble origins. Switzerland was about as poor as it got in 19th century Europe, especially in the sparsely industrialized central cantons, where unemployment spurred emigration and the shuttering of businesses. Karl Elsener, a cutler, or knife maker, desperately wanted to create jobs in his home canton of Schwyz, but to industrialize the traditionally hand-crafted production of knives would have required enormous capital. Elsener could not afford to build a factory or buy machinery so, instead, he founded the Swiss Cutlers' Union in 1884 in the village of Ibach. A small group of some two dozen craftsmen joined the cooperative, manufacturing different knives for use in kitchens, in farm fields and on hiking trails.

2. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss army decided to start issuing a pocket knife to each of its soldiers. Since no Swiss company had the means to produce the quantity needed, it purchased the first 15,000 knives from a German knife manufacturer. Elsener thought that the army's knives should come from Switzerland, so when the army contract was set to expire, he and the co-op seized the opportunity. He designed a simple folding knife - the Soldier Knife, or Modell 1890, that featured a wooden handle - with a blade, a punch/reamer, a screwdriver for the maintenance of the army's new rifles, and a can opener for preparing field rations. The army brass loved it, and Elsener's co-op was able to swipe the contract from the Germans.

3. After the first successful run of Soldier Knives and just a year into their contract, the Cutlers' Union began to falter. The craftsmen couldn't keep up with demand and many of the workers quit, but the others carried on and even released a new Elsener-designed "officer's knife." The new model's tools were spring-loaded, making it lighter and allowing for the addition of a corkscrew. The army looked at the Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, or "Swiss Officers and Sports knife," but deemed a corkscrew not "essential for survival." They continued to issue their officers the standard Soldier Knife, and left them to purchase the new model on their own.

4. Elsener's knives soon found their way across Europe. During World War II, American soldiers fell in love with them and bought them up whenever they hit the PX (Post Exchange) stores on American bases. Even the Greatest Generation had a hard time getting their mouths around Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, though, so they took to calling them “Swiss Army Knives.”

5. After his mother, Victoria, died, Elsener named the company that grew out of the Cutlers' Union in her honor. She had, after all, given Karl some of the money he needed to start the operation. Later, when the company started using stainless steel in some of the knives' components, Elsener added inox - a shortening of the French term for the metal - to the end of the company name to get Victorinox.

6. In 1908, the Swiss army decided to split its knife contract, giving half the order to Elsener's company in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and the other half to cutler Theodore Wenger's company in a French-speaking canton. They claimed this was in the interest of national harmony and absolved them of regional favoritism, but the competition probably also helped them with costs, and pushed both companies on the design front, too. Nearly a century later, in 2005, this arrangement came to an end when Victorinox purchased Wenger, reportedly to keep the Swiss Army Knife in Swiss hands after the struggling Wenger had been entertaining offers from foreign buyers.

7. Today, both Victorinox and its Wenger subsidiary continue to manufacture the knives in two Swiss factories. They each supply some 25,000 knives a year - less than a day's production - to the Swiss army. The rest of the two companies' massive output — each factory can make up to 28,000 knives a day and together they produce seven to fifteen million knives a year — goes to the civilian, mostly foreign, markets. Victorinox knives are now labeled as "The Original Swiss Army Knife" while the Wenger ones are identified as "The Genuine Swiss Army Knife."

8. The two companies put out more than 100 models of Swiss Army Knife between them, from the classic bare-bones Soldier-style knife to ones with laser pointers and 64 GB USB drives. Of the two, Wenger is more well known for its cutting-edge and unconventional models, like the ergonomically-contoured EvoGrip and the Giant, a nine-inch-wide, $1,400 monster of a knife with 85 implements. There are a few models that never got off the ground and were lost to history, too, like the one that had a special blade for cutting consistently sized slices of cheese.

9. Even with all this innovation, there have been just eight total models created for the Swiss army since 1891. The updates generally come out to accommodate changes to other army equipment, like new standard-issue rifles. These military model knives might seem alien to those familiar with the civilian version. They lack the iconic red plastic handle, and instead have a dark aluminum grip. They also feature a tool usually not found on the civilian models, meant to puncture ammunition cans and scrape carbon from the hard-to-reach parts of a firearm.

10. Karl Elsener ran the company he founded until 1918, and there has been a Karl at the helm ever since. Karl II ran the show until 1950, Karl III until 2007 and Karl IV is in charge today.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
© Nintendo
arrow
fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES