The Beauty of the Multitool: Swiss Army Knives From Ancient Rome to the Consumer Electronics Show

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The multitool is such a simple idea: Your many implements, tightly tucked together in one little package. The Swiss Army knife, first built by a German company in 1891, is the iconic example. With its red handle and Victorinox logo, it comes equipped with a couple of dozen small tools -- knives, picks, even a magnifying glass. The simplicity of the idea belies the beauty of the design, the countless tiny details that enable the tools to nest together so neatly, open and close so easily, and weather use so admirably.

But Swiss Army troops were not the first people -- not even close -- to sport a multitool. The earliest surviving examples date to the Roman Empire, when eating implements such as spoons and knives were bound together in knots of silver and iron. Ever since then, the march of the multitool has been a steady accretion of more implements into one device, all while trying to preserve an easy-to-carry size and weight: How can we fit more into a limited space?

Today mutiltool innovation continues to answer that same question, but implements aren't the only things getting compressed -- data, more and more of it, can find a storage home on the latest Victorinox models. In 2004, the company released its first pocket knife equipped with USB data storage -- 64 megabytes. Over the last eight years they've expanded the drive's capacity, unveiling at CES this week a Swiss Army knife armed that can store one terabyte of information. The feature speaks to what sorts of tools we carry around with us today -- data, not forks.

But while data is certainly the tool of our time, who really needs a terabyte of it in their pocket? Particularly in an age of cloud storage, that kind of carrying capacity is more of a novelty than it is a necessity. And that puts it exactly in line with other multitools throughout history. You can see this in the intricate details of the gadgets in the slideshow below from the Romans' eating utensils to the fine Swiss specimen in the Museum of Modern Art's collection. These little tools have always been objects of desire -- more loved for their ingenuity than their functionality, or, at best, the way they combined the two.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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