‘Quest for the Holey Snail’ – I digress

My latest novel, Quest for the Holey Snail, includes a handful of digressions. To be honest, they don’t really add much to the story itself, which is probably why they’re called digressions. On the other hand, each one will give the reader a more in-depth misunderstanding of some of the stuff that’s mentioned in the book. Here’s an example…


Swiss Army knife

Illustration by Penny Philcox

Unfortunately for researchers into the history of the now ubiquitous multi-tool, precise details of the invention and early development of the Swiss Army knife have been lost in the mists of time. Many theories have been put forward, but only two have ever gained a significant level of support within the multi-tool research community.

The first, and less popular of the two, has come to be known as the “Van Driver Theory” after its creator, Gustav van Driver, Emeritus Professor of Multi-Tool Mechanics at the Polytechnic of Eastern Gdansk. After many years of painstaking research into how the Swiss Army knife came to be invented and its early development, Van Driver finally published his findings in a three-volume treatise, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Invention and Early Development of the Swiss Army Knife.

To summarise briefly, Van Driver discovered that the earliest known prototype of the Swiss Army knife was produced in 1783 by a Hungarian knitwear importer called Joseph Swiss, who had a curious obsession about scissors. According to his diaries and a variety of other documents, including letters, diagrams and artists’ impressions, which Van Driver had unearthed, Mr Swiss believed that the secret to a long and healthy life was to keep all forms of bodily hair and nails immaculately trimmed at all times. But because Mr Swiss insisted on always using the right tool for the right job, he had to carry with him several different types of scissors — a pair for eyebrows, another for nose hair, one for armpit hair, separate scissors for thumbnails and fingernails, and so on. He even had a special pair for trimming any hairy moles he might have. In all, Mr Swiss took with him a minimum of fifteen pairs of scissors every time he left his house since he never knew when he might discover an unruly eyelash or wayward chest hair. However, as he transported all of the scissors in the pockets of his trousers — and despite taking extreme care — he received frequent wounds in the upper thigh area from the tip of one scissor blade or another.

Not surprisingly, Mr Swiss grew tired of being jabbed in the legs almost every time he sat down or ran to catch the mail coach, so he urgently sought a solution to the problem. But every method he devised resulted in failure. His first idea was to put a wine bottle cork onto the tip of each blade, but this made the scissors far too bulky for all of them to fit into his trouser pockets. Another scheme was to line his pockets with lead to reinforce the regulation cotton, but this proved to be impractical due to the additional weight causing his trousers to fall down around his ankles whenever he stood up or walked anywhere.

Finally, he hit upon the notion of mounting all of the pairs of scissors together inside an open-sided metal box so that each pair could be hinged out from the container as required. The invention was far larger than the Swiss Army knife we know today and still much too big to fit into a standard-sized trouser pocket but was nevertheless made easily portable by strapping it to the upper arm with two thin strips of leather.

Delighted with his creation, Mr Swiss paid a local scissor factory to produce hundreds of copies in the belief that people would flock to buy such a useful invention. Sadly, however, not a single one was sold during the entire first year that the multi-scissor was on the market, very probably because no-one on the planet — apart from Mr Swiss himself — was of the opinion that keeping all forms of bodily hair and nails neatly trimmed was the secret to a long and healthy life. So heavily had he invested in the manufacture of his invention and so non-existent were the returns that Mr Swiss was on the point of bankruptcy when he was approached by a multi-national cutlery manufacturer who offered to buy the patent. It was a generous offer, and Mr Swiss had little choice but to accept, although he was deeply saddened when the “new improved” version of his invention first appeared in the shops.

Of the fifteen pairs of specialist scissors, only a single general purpose pair now remained. The rest had been replaced with a range of tools and gadgets, none of which would be of any use at all for such essential tasks as the trimming of ear hair or the paring of toenails. Mr Swiss was also aggrieved that the new owners of the patent had broken — or at least fudged — a condition of the sale that the product should continue to bear its original name of “Mr Swiss’s Arm Scissors”. Mr Swiss therefore sued the company for breach of contract, but the court ruled against him, accepting the defendant’s arguments that Mr Swiss’s handwriting was so bad, they thought he’d written “Swiss Army Knife” and that, in any case, “Mr Swiss’s Arm Scissors” just sounded silly.

It is said by some that Mr Swiss died soon afterwards of a broken heart, but according to the postmortem report discovered by Professor Van Driver, the cause of death was given as “a sudden and violent attack of sneezing which resulted in the accidental impaling of the brain with a pair of long-bladed nasal hair scissors”.

The second theory on the invention and development of the Swiss Army knife is considered by many in the multi-tool research community to present a far more plausible explanation than Professor Van Driver’s and is based in large part on an in-depth analysis of the Swiss psyche. It is well known of course that Switzerland has always maintained its neutrality in military matters, which stems not from a morally ethical adherence to pacifism but from an ethnologically innate inability to make decisions. Such indecisiveness dates back to the very creation of Switzerland as an independent nation state when its founding fathers failed to agree on a name for the country when completing the application form for the IRN (International Registry of Nations). A compromise was finally reached after several days of dithering and indecision, and it was agreed that the newly born nation would henceforth be known as “Switzerland”, which is the ancient Siculo-Hurartian word for “whatever”.

It is also no coincidence that Switzerland has not one but four official languages. Faced with yet another choice, the founding fathers eventually whittled down the options to French, German, Italian and Romansh, but no-one could reach a decision on which to select, so in the end, it was left to the Swiss people themselves to decide what language they wanted to communicate in.

Almost from the moment the new country was established, opposing sides in a variety of nearby wars begged and pleaded with Switzerland to join with them and become their ally in their “heroic battle against evil”. (They all said that, regardless of what side they were on.) However, the Swiss government could never make up its mind which side to fight on because it couldn’t decide which was telling the truth about fighting evil and which was actually the evil one itself. Consequently, the Swiss always ended up by declining to participate on either side, and over the centuries, insisting on their neutrality became a habit rather than the result of any rational analysis of the particular situation, so nobody bothers asking them to be their ally any more.

Switzerland’s neutrality also explains why the Pope employs Swiss soldiers to guard the Vatican. Not because His Holiness is under the totally misguided belief that Swiss troops are the crème de la crème of military achievement or that they are fiercer warriors than any other soldiers, but simply because they are incredibly cheap. Given that Switzerland has quite a large standing army but never goes to war, there’s nothing much for their troops to do, so the Swiss government lends some of them out to the Pope, who pays them little more than the Vatican’s minimum wage. It’s an arrangement that suits both parties very well and is rather like a professional football club lending a player to another team. The lending club still has ownership rights over the player but doesn’t have to pay his wages while the club which borrows him gets the temporary use of a player who’s usually a lot better than most of the dross it already has in its team.

Yet despite this mutually beneficial arrangement with the Vatican, Switzerland’s continued insistence on its neutrality meant that the vast majority of its troops remained at home with little else to do than hold endless parades and repeatedly whitewash every inanimate object in the grounds of their barracks. Consequently, after many decades of not being allowed to kill anyone, it became apparent that morale among the Swiss military had sunk to a dangerous level, and mutiny was not beyond the realms of possibility. As a result, the No-War Office ordered some of Switzerland’s top boffins to design a completely new “weapon” that was useful rather than warlike in order to keep the troops occupied and therefore distract them from their growing desire to “get out there and do some serious killing”.

Many months passed before a prototype of the “weapon” was delivered to the No-War Office, and, in essence, it was the earliest known version of the Swiss Army knife. Small enough to fit into a standard, army regulation trouser pocket, it contained no less than twenty-seven handy little tools and gadgets including, for example, a tool for extracting stones from the hooves of regimental goat mascots, a gadget for finding the ends of regimental Sellotape, and a small brush for the application of verruca ointment. Even though the No-War Office had asked for one “weapon” only, the reason why the boffins had created twenty-seven “weapons” in one was purely because none of them could decide which of the twenty-seven “weapons” to choose, so they’d compromised by including them all.

And thus, the Swiss Army knife was born, and it is Swiss indecisiveness that we have to thank for the wonderfully handy multi-tool we cherish today — unless of course you happen to believe Professor Van Driver’s ridiculous guff about some Hungarian scissor freak and his utterly bonkers “Arm Scissors”. In three volumes? Get real, Prof. You should get out more.

Click here for more information about ‘Quest for the Holey Snail’

Click here to read the opening chapters.

Click here to buy.

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