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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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For members

QUALITY OF LIFE

ANALYSIS: Is the quality of life really that high in Switzerland?

Switzerland, as well as some of its cities, regularly appear in international surveys among the nations with the highest quality of life. Why is this so?

ANALYSIS: Is the quality of life really that high in Switzerland?

In its annual ranking of 85 nations, US News & World Report has placed Switzerland in top position, based on 73 different criteria.

While it did not come up tops in all of the categories, Switzerland did sufficiently well in others to get an overall high score, as well as high scores in several individual categories.

In terms of quality of life, Switzerland ranks fourth, but it got high scores across nearly all the sub-categories. This is where the country ranks best — and not so good.

READ MORE: Switzerland ranked ‘best country’ in the world

Political stability (100 points out of 100)

Nobody can argue that Switzerland merits to get such high marks in this category.

The country has not been involved in any wars, unrests or upheavals in recent history, protected in large part by its neutrality and pacifism.

It is also politically stable from within, with well established democratic processes — such as referendums — providing security against abuses of power.

Economically stable  (100)

Switzerland’s economy has withstood the Covid crisis far better than many other countries, and continues to be strong, partly due to an inflation rate that is far lower than in eurozone nations.

The reason is that Switzerland “combines world class governance with high levels of social capital and high social resilience. It also had strong financial systems, manageable debt levels and good health system resilience”. 

READ MORE: Swiss post-Covid economic recovery ‘fourth best in the world’

Safety

Various surveys have shown that Switzerland is among the top-10 safest countries in the world, and one even rated it the safest in 2022.

This is not to say that there is no crime in Switzerland, but the rate, especially of violent infractions, is relatively low in comparison to other countries.

Even large cities, though more risky than small towns and rural areas, are not crime-ridden.

READ MORE: Switzerland ranked one of the world’s ‘safest countries’

A good job market (92.2)

Switzerland’s unemployment rate has been lower than in many other countries for decades, and it recovered quicker than others from the slowdown that occurred during the pandemic.

Currently, the unemployment is 2.1 percent, versus 6.6 percent across the EU.

There are now 15.6 percent more job vacancies in most industries than at the same time in 2021.

Family-friendly (85.4)

Parents of small children who are trying to find affordable daycare in Switzerland may disagree with this assessment, as these services are expensive and good facilities may be hard to find.

However, there are plenty plenty of benefits for children and families as well.

According to The Local’s reader survey, Switzerland offers an abundance of outdoor activities, the children are safe — whether playing outside or walking to school — and both good healthcare and education system are a plus as well.

Income equality (85.2)

In this category, Switzerland is in the 5th place in the US News & World Report survey, right after the Scandinavian countries.

While there is data showing that  gender gap exists when it comes to pay, a study by the Federal Statistical Office shows that income distribution (between the highest and lowest earners) is fairer in Switzerland than in many other nations.

Public health system (84.7)

Although very expensive with costs increasing each year, in terms of quality and access to care Switzerland’s system is among the best in the world.

Like much of the European Union, Switzerland has a universal health system. However, The system here is fundamentally different in that it is not tax-based or financed by employers, but rather by individuals themselves.

Everyone must have a basic health insurance coverage and purchase it from one of dozens of private carriers.

The system is generally efficient, has an extensive network of doctors, as well as well-equipped hospitals and clinics.

Patients are free to choose their own doctor and usually have unlimited access to specialists. Waiting lists for medical treatments are relatively short.

READ MORE: How is Swiss healthcare system different from the rest of Europe?

Public education system

Switzerland has 12 publicly funded universities (10 cantonal universities and two federal institutes of technology), and a number of public Universities of Applied Sciences.

According to The QS World University Rankings, “Switzerland has the “third best university system in the world”.

The country also excels in vocational training —a three-year, dual-track programme that includes two days in a vocational school and three days getting an on-the-job training in their chosen sector (the so-called apprenticeships).

It includes a variety of fields such as business and commercial, administration, retail, tourism, construction, information technology, arts, wellness services, as well as various trades — in all, 230 professions.

This programme  “enjoys very strong support from Swiss employers, who credit it with being a major contributor to the continuing vitality and strength of the Swiss economy”

READ MORE: Why is vocational training so popular in Switzerland and how much can I earn?

These aspects all contribute to the high score Switzerland obtained for its quality of living.

Not great for affordability

However, there is one negative category in the ranking as well, and it is not difficult to guess what it is: affordability, in which Switzerland’s score is…2.7.

It comes as no surprise to anyone living here (and a shock to tourists and new arrivals) that Switzerland’s cost of living is among the highest in the world, and especially in the country’s two largest cities, Zurich and Geneva.

Everything from food and clothing to housing and public transportation is more expensive than in the EU, with the exception of electronics and lower taxes.

However, there is also another way to look at this phenomenon: that Swiss salaries, which are higher here than in the eurozone, and low inflation rate, offset the prices.

READ MORE: Do wages in Switzerland make up for the high cost of living?
 
 
 

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