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Swiss inventions - some trippy stuff...

31 Oct 2011, 17:00

Published: 31 Oct 2011 17:00 GMT+01:00

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From the pioneering army knife to the mind-bending Green Fairy, contributor Robert La Bua examines ten Swiss inventions that have changed the world.

See also: Cars, mice and super-trikes: reinventing Switzerland


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. 


Cellophane is another portmanteau, this one combining cellulose and the French diaphane (as in diaphanous), created in 1908 by Jacques Brandenberger, who witnessed a client spill wine on a tablecloth in a restaurant. Brandenberger set out to find a way to waterproof fabrics such as tablecloths, but when he found that the cellulose-based material he sprayed onto the cloth would easily peel from it in thin sheets, he realised he was on to something much bigger.

Swiss Army Knife

Invented by Karl Elsener and named after his mother Victoria, the Victorinox (Victoria plus inox, a shortened form of the French word for stainless steel, inoxydable) Swiss Officers' Knife has evolved from its creation in the 1890s as a simple knife to include a panoply of features from the basic corkscrew to very contemporary additions like LED lights and MP3 players.

Direct democracy

Though the Ancient Greeks are credited with the concept of democracy, it was the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291 that saw the principles of direct democracy put into action at a time when monarchies ruled elsewhere across Europe. Today, the popular initiatives and the referendums they engender are a proud part of Swiss heritage.

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.


Though much quaffed by the French, the aniseed-flavoured spirit absinthe originated in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. The Green Fairy went on to become all the rage in fashionable watering holes across Europe until it was eventually banned in several countries due to its addictive nature and attendant antisocial behaviour for which the drink was blamed. Absinthe has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.


Hippies, artists, and other psychedelic adventurers can thank Albert Hofmann from Taluns for the creation of another mind-altering substance, lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD (or simply, acid) while at work in a laboratory at Sandoz in 1938—though it is Bicycle Day (19 April 1943) that is celebrated annually as the day the good doctor first experimented with LSD on a human patient, that being himself.


Not many people have a cereal named after them unless they own the company.  Muesli, known in Switzerland as Birchermüesli, was created by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients at his sanatorium in Zurich. His original version was meant to have 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, muesli became a worldwide sensation.

Story continues below…

Internet time

Leave it to a watchmaker to come up with a new way of telling time in an age when communication spans the globe instantaneously. Dispensing with timezones, Swiss company Swatch divided the day into 1,000 .beats, each .beat equalling 1m24.6s.  Though not quite in the mainstream, you have to admire the logic and ingenuity of yet another Swiss company bringing changes to the world as we know it.

And of course:

Milk chocolate

This one's a given, but why did it come about? Swiss Daniel Peter solved a problem facing chocolate-makers for years by using condensed milk instead of regular milk to sweeten the bitterness of chocolate as it gained popularity in Europe in the late 1800s. Dairy farmers have been thankful ever since.

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Your comments about this article

2012-01-15 15:35:35 by Patrick of Atlantis
According to Orson Wells in his role as Harry Lime in the movie The Third Man, the Swiss also invented the cuckoo clock. If that is wrong please disabuse us.
2011-12-27 03:07:16 by xexon
I've always admired the Swiss mind. There's something about being surrounded by mountains that provokes deep thought in human beings. x
2011-11-11 11:46:47 by Flipster
Velcro = velours (french) + croche (french)
2011-11-03 17:58:02 by Englishted
Velcro ? Why if he was Swiss did he combine two English words ?
2011-11-02 22:47:56 by MOI
WOW, the Swiss invented some good stuff.......
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