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A Swiss army knife (often abbreviated SwAK) is a multi-purpose tool containing a wide assortment of blades, screwdrivers, scissors, files and other gadgets. All of these accessories are stored through an ingenious series of spring-loaded compartments which share a single handle. Two Swiss companies, Victorinox and Wenger, each have a license to produce the official "Swiss Army Knife", although the model commissioned for the actual Swiss army is not the one marketed for the general public. Authentic military versions are constructed from anodized aluminum, not the familiar red plastic of a commercial Swiss army knife.
The first Swiss army knife appeared in 1891, although its designer, Karl Elsener, did not perfect the economic spring-loaded model until 1897. Regular Swiss army soldiers received a version containing a thick knife blade, two screwdrivers, a can opener and an awl or punch. Officers' Swiss army knives also contained a corkscrew, which apparently proved useful in the heat of battle. Modern versions of the Swiss army knife may contain many other utensils, such as spoons, forks, toothpicks, compasses, magnifying glasses and lighters. Advanced models may even contain emergency surgical equipment.
Karl Elsener founded a company called Victorinox (after his mother Victoria) in a primarily German-speaking area of Switzerland. His original contract called for delivery of 50,000 Swiss army knives per year. In 1908, however, the Swiss government opted to split the contract between Victorinox and a competitor named Theodore Wenger. Wenger's self-named company operated in a French-speaking area of Switzerland, leading the army contractors to believe a cross-cultural sharing of the contract would build goodwill. Today, Victorinox and Wenger each supply 25,000 official Swiss army knives with anodized aluminum handles. Millions more are sold all over the world to non-military consumers.
The Swiss army knife is a marvel of economic design and ingenuity. The very name "Swiss army knife" has fallen into popular use as a metaphor for successful multi-tasking. Specialized Swiss army knives continue to be popular gifts for fishermen, mountain climbers, golfers and other outdoorsmen. The technology behind the original Swiss army knife can still be seen in the explorers sent to examine Mars and other planets. The idea of storing a maximum amount of tools in a minimal amount of space continues to inspire engineers and toolmakers today.