Barbed Wire changed the world — forever. It’s commonplace to the point of virtual invisibility to all but criminals – yet who gives it a thought? Oddly enough, it has not been around for all that long, under 150 years in fact, but is truly a classic design, and the fascinating story reflects changes in society of all kinds.
The story begins with Henry Rose back in late 1872 early 1873. Rose had a farm in Illinois and he came up with a wooden fence that had projecting wire points that was very good at dissuading livestock from escaping enclosures. He patented the idea and exhibited at the DeKalb County Fair – which was seen by farmer and former teacher, Joseph Farwell Glidden.
Glidden patented barbed wire and the barbed wire fence in 1874-07, and with Isaac Ellwood went into manufacturing as the I.L. Ellwood Manufacturing Company. Two years later, as Glidden sold his share of the business to ‘The Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Co.’, a relative of Glidden’s wife (John Warne Gates) started his own barbed wire factory (‘The Southern Wire Co’), until a court and Supreme Court decision stopped competitors to The Glidden patent (held by ‘Washburn & Moen’), so in 1898 John Warne Gates took control of Washburn and Moen, and created American Steel and Wire which later became United States Steel – all massive monopolies and money-spinners.
Glidden became one of the richest men in the world, a very high-ranking citizen, a respected businessman and a famous philanthropist. Barbed wire became one the the biggest exports and most widely used inventions of all time. There is even a town in Iowa named Glidden.
- It is common to date the end of the Old West era to the spread of barbed wire…
At the time, in the ‘Wild West’, barbed wire fencing started the so-called ‘Range Wars’ — disputes between resident farmers and the more nomadic free-range ranchers, cowboys, shepherds and Indians. Barbed wire defined land boundaries and territory and so defined rights of access to water and grazing. After just 25 years, the lawmen prevailed, and cutting a barbed wire fence was a crime that carried a heavy punishment as almost all of the open range had been fenced in under private ownership
Not only was barbed wire a significant factor in taming the wild west and shaping the USA, but it had a massive impact in Europe during World War I when barbed wire fencing was used to define war front boundaries and halt advancing forces long enough to be killed with machine guns.
Much of the artillery bombardment on the Western Front in World War I was aimed at cutting the barbed wire that was a major component of trench warfare.
So from being a quick and cheap way to fence in animals, barbed wire became a weapon of civilising a country by defining regions, borders and boundaries of property. The idea of keeping animals in was replaced by keeping people out, slowing armies, torture and protection.
It is a symbol of the prisoner now — of the oppressed, yet it is a classic American Dream story.
Barbed wire is simple in concept. Corner posts take the tension, the barbs are twisted onto the wire. There are different grades of steel, but it is usual for the wire to be galvanised to give longer life by slowing down corrosion.