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UNDERSTANDING THE SWISS

12 life-changing inventions you didn’t know were Swiss

OK, so we all know about clocks, cheese and chocolate, but Switzerland has made a range of other essential contributions to the world. Here are twelve of the best.

A Rickenbacker guitar close up. Image: DeLerkim, Creative Commons Licence, Attribution Share Alike 20.
The electric guitar is a Swiss co-creation. Image: DeLerkim, Creative Commons Licence, Attribution Share Alike 20.

The Swiss are an inventive bunch. For a culturally and linguistically diverse country with a small population, Switzerland has made a number of notable novel contributions to the world. 

Here are some of the best Swiss inventions, many of which changed the lives of billions. 

The Swiss army knife

OK, so you knew this one was coming. 

The Swiss army knife was first produced in Ilbach in 1891 by the precursor company to current manufacturer Victorinox. The company was awarded a contract to produce knives for the Swiss army. 

The image below shows the early design of the knife, known as a ‘Soldier’s Knife 1890’. 

While the knives were commonly used in the Swiss military, it was not until American soldier’s coined the term ‘Swiss army knife’ after World War II when they gained international popularity. 

The Americans gave the knife this nickname, as they had trouble pronouncing ‘Offiziermesser’ – officer’s knife – and so the Swiss army knife name was born. 

Years later and Swiss army knives remain popular across the globe, while collectors often pay tens of thousands for vintage versions. 

Velcro

Swiss engineer George de Mestral was out hunting one day and came home to find seed pods sticking steadfastly to his shoes, clothes, and dog.

After a peek through the microscope to see what was going on, he created Velcro, a portmanteau of the words velvet and crochet, mimicking the hook shapes of the seeds’ coatings that would cling repeatedly to any surface with an available loop. 

The fastener has been used by everyone from fashion designers to NASA, along with a few clever acrobats. 

Muesli

This famous breakfast was created by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients at his sanatorium in Zurich at the beginning of the 1900s under the name Birchermüesli (Bircher referring to his name and Müesli being the German diminutive of ‘Mues’, which means mush). 

Muesli has however changed over the years – and in our opinion it has changed for the better.

The original version had much more fruit and be eaten with orange juice rather than today’s grain-heavy boxed mixes served with milk. During the healthy-body craze of the 1970s – a craze which seemingly has never ended – muesli became a worldwide sensation, changing breakfast forever. 

What a trip: Ten great Swiss inventions

Aluminium foil

The first patent for aluminium foil was taken out by Swiss business man Heinrich Alfred Gautschi in 1905, with the first larger order coming from Germany to wrap 1.6 million packets of snuff.

It wasn’t until 1910 when the firm of Dr. Lauber, Neher & Cie began production of the material in long rolls in the town of Emmishofen that the material really began to gain in popularity.

Within a couple of years, it was being used to wrap Toblerone chocolate bars, Maggi stock cubes and the heads of conspiracy theorists. The rest is history.

Cellophane

Take a look in your kitchen. Right next to the aluminium foil, there’s a roll of cling wrap/cling film, which is used for keeping food fresh and dry. 

This was also a Swiss invention. Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger came up with the idea, like most good ideas, when he spilled a glass of wine while drinking. 

He then got to work thinking about how to come up with a material that would repel liquids rather than absorb them. 

His project took 12 years and on completion he named it cellophane – from the words cellulose and diaphane, French for transparent. 

Absinthe

Absinthe was invented in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel.

Psychoactivity, hallucination and debauchery are all associated with the (sometimes) green drink, attributed to a special chemical property in the spirit which goes beyond its high alcohol content. 

While the drink itself might not be to everyone’s taste, the fascinating story of why it was banned worldwide for a century – known as the ‘Absinthe Murders’ – is both shocking and true. We covered it at the following link. 

READ MORE: Re-living Switzerland’s ‘absinthe murders’ 115 years on

Helvetica font

Switzerland’s full Latin name is the Confoederatio Helvetica, which is why there are no prizes for guessing who invented the Helvetica font. 

The world would be a lot less literate without the Helvetica font, one of the most popular ever invented.

Developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, the classic Helvetica and its many variations are favourites for their crisp, san-serif letters to deliver communication in a clean style. 

Not many typefaces get their own exhibits in art museums, but New York’s Museum Of Modern Art celebrated the font with a 50 Years Of Helvetica exhibit in 2007.

Electric guitar

Another surprising entry to the list, the electric guitar was invented – or at least co-invented – by Basel’s Adolph Rickenbacher, who had moved to the United States and Anglicised his last name to Rickenbacker, when he came up with the idea. 

Rickenbacker created a musical instrument company of the same name, where they first produced an electric steel guitar in 1932 in Southern California. 

While the electric guitar would go on to be made by other companies and manufacturers, Rickenbacker guitars and bass guitars were popular among everyone from The Beatles to Metallica. 

The internet (well kinda)

Much like the electric guitar, Switzerland played a co-inventor role, but an important role nonetheless

The precursor to the internet that we currently used was invented by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee while working at European Organisation for Nuclear Research, otherwise known as CERN, in Geneva. 

Berners-Lee was frustrated that login information was stored individually on each computer in CERN, even though the login was used to connect to an internal network. He then invented a network which would save login data, while also creating the world’s first ever website – which saved information on how the web works. 

This network then evolved into the World Wide Web and the internet on which you are reading this very story today. 

LSD

Hippies, artists, and other psychedelic adventurers can thank former University of Zurich student Albert Hofmann for the creation of another mind-altering substance, lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD (or simply, acid). 

Hoffmann created the substance while at work in a laboratory at Sandoz, now part of Novartis, in 1938. As with many scientific inventions, his goal was to create something markedly different – a respiratory and circulatory stimulant. 

Five years later – 19th April 1943 – he took a look at the substance before accidentally ingesting some of it, where he began to understand its effects. 

Writing about his experiences, he said he became “affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours. After about two hours this condition faded away”.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river….

Instant coffee

The Swiss love their coffee so much that they actually have a strategic nationwide reserve set up in case of a shortage, along with spending more on the stuff than any of their neighbours.

READ: Understanding Switzerland’s strategic coffee reserves

But it might surprise you to learn that Switzerland is responsible for instant coffee. 

It might not be a favourite of coffee snobs, but in desperate times – think camping, travelling or staying over at your weird tea-drinking friend – a cup of hot instant coffee can really do the trick.

The long road towards the invention of instant coffee includes tales of the American Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, hyperinflation and a global race – before the code was finally cracked in a home kitchen in Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva. 

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland won the global race to invent instant coffee

Cheese slices

Alright alright, so cheese had to appear on this list somewhere – but you probably didn’t think it’d be cheese of this variety.

The yellow, square-shaped, stackable processed cheese slices that most people like to equate with America is actually a Swiss invention. 

Processed yellow cheese was invented by Bern man Walter Gerber in 1911. While the shape fits perfectly on a toastie or cheeseburger, it was actually invented as such so that it could be shipped overseas. 

Obviously the cheese was a bit more of a hit elsewhere than in Switzerland, although anyone biting into a burger anywhere on earth has Gerber to thank.  

Honourable mentions

The above illustrates that the Swiss are indeed an inventive bunch, meaning that we were unable to fit in all of their creations to one list. Below are some other life-changing inventions which the Swiss are responsible for. 

  • The zipper
  • The ‘Rex’ potato peeler
  • Doodle (online calendar system)
  • The Toilet Duck
  • Sudoku (originally invented in Switzerland, became famous in Japan in the 1980s via the United States)
  • The Red Cross (no, not the Swiss flag, but the international humanitarian organisation)
  • The wristwatch
  • LCD displays (not LSD, which of course we discussed above)
  • The electric toothbrush
  • The sugar cube
  • The computer mouse

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

From dodgy bankers to cuckoo clocks, William Tell to Swiss soldiers, Switzerland is a country where myths and stereotypes abound. We separate the facts from the fiction.

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

When you think of Switzerland, you probably conjure up images of cheese, chocolate, Alps, cows, and watches. Add to this image the yodelling and Alphorn playing, and this somewhat idealised (but nevertheless true) picture of Switzerland is complete.

But at the same time, some common beliefs related to Switzerland are as full of holes as… Emmental cheese.

William Tell

Many people firmly believe that this folk hero and expert crossbow marksman who shot an apple off his son’s head, was a real figure who lived in Uri in the early 1500s.

Though he embodies the struggle for freedom and independence — principles that the Swiss hold dear to this day — there is no evidence that Tell actually existed.

Historians investigating the Tell legend didn’t find any evidence that such a person ever lived, or proof that anyone shot an apple off a boy’s head.

Among the arguments against Tell’s existence is that crossbows were not commonly used in the 14th century.

According to one history fact-checking site, “it seems that the origin of the story was in a myth that was popular in Europe, and which was adopted by the people of the Alpine Valleys. It later was used as a foundation myth, by successive Swiss governments, to explain the development of the Swiss Federation”.

Neutrality

Some people take it for granted that Switzerland has been a neutral nation, which didn’t get involved in other countries’ armed conflicts, since its official creation on August 1st, 1291.

However, in the Middle Ages, the country was a military power and its soldiers could be hired for money, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most.

That was long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers went to the battlefields with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

It wasn’t until 1815 that Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarrelling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

READ MORE : Swiss history: When Switzerland was a nation of warriors

Wealth

A common belief is that Switzerland has always been a rich and prosperous country it is today.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In centuries past, Switzerland was a pauper nation, where a large portion of the population in this landlocked, mountainous country with no natural resources, struggled to survive. Some people even ended up emigrating to South and North America to escape a life of poverty.

Many of those who did not go abroad moved from rural areas to the cities, where they continued to live in precarious conditions.

According to an official government document, “anyone who was not a citizen of a commune was homeless and lived on the margins of the community or was left to wander the country as a vagrant”.

Not exactly the image we have of Switzerland today.

READ MORE: Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

Banks

In many people’s minds, Switzerland’s financial institutions are synonymous with dirty money and illicit dealings.

As The Local previously reported, “such images are often perpetuated by Hollywood films,  in which shady characters invariably have a banker in Zurich — an equally shady individual with a thin moustache and a dark suit — who quietly stashes illegally begotten money in secret accounts”.

In reality, Swiss banks don’t quite live up to this notoriety. For instance,  there is no such thing these days as ‘anonymous’ accounts.

To open an account, you must have a valid ID like a passport, verification of your address, and a document to prove the money you are depositing comes from legitimate (i.e. non-criminal) sources.

In terms of banking secrecy, there is some truth to it:  in principle the banks can’t reveal your financial information to a third party.

However, there are some exceptions, as in order to prevent tax evasion, Switzerland has signed agreements with a number of countries to cooperate in exchange of financial information of their respective citizens.

So if you are a foreign national, the government of your country can request Switzerland to release your account(s) information and banks must comply.

READ MORE : Gold, secrecy and wealth: Six Swiss bank myths that need to be busted

Cuckoo clocks and lederhosen

A number of foreign tourists in Switzerland are looking to buy ‘Swiss’ cuckoo clocks, not realising that these clocks originally came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Now, however, many are manufactured in Asia; either way, very few, if any, are hatched in Switzerland.

By the same token, many foreigners associate lederhosen — short or knee-length leather breeches — with Switzerland.

Wrong again.

Maybe it’s because they confuse Switzerland with Austria and Germany (the three countries do look alike, especially in the dark), but whatever the reason, lederhosen is not a Swiss garb.

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