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

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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.

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History
Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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Wikipedia/Public Domain

On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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entertainment
The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

Wire Photo, eBay, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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