During the twentieth century, barbed wire became the symbol of war, death, destruction and human suffering. We all know the imagery from the First World War, the no-mans-land littered with barbed wire and bodies hanging in it. But it didn’t just remain in the First World War, after all, barbed wire is insanely effective and cost-efficient. During the Second World War, the Germans eagerly used it for concentration camps, and after the war, the iron curtain and the primitive version of the Berlin wall consisted of barbed wire.
And it is still used to protect borders and to imprison dangers to society even today. But the invention of this symbol of war wasn’t out of any military necessity. During the late 19th century a businessman and cattle-rancher from the United States wanted to keep his cattle in a particular area and did some experimenting. Little did he know his invention would not just change his personal fortune, but the history of the United States and the entire world. His invention brought an end to the Wild West, and greatly influenced the way warfare was conducted in the century afterwards. There is a reason why Native Americans referred to barbed wire as the ‘Devil’s rope.’
Barbed wire was invented in 1874 by the American businessman and rancher Joseph Farwell Glidden. It is the type of barbed wire we still know today, robust, sturdy and cost-efficient. It’s effective in its simplicity: two steel wires wrapped along with barbs at regular intervals. Glidden initially invented it as a way to enclose cattle on massive American ranches and to mark private property.
Before we get to Glidden’s version of barbed wire we know today, I want to take a quick look at its earlier versions.
Because in 1860 Léonce Eugène Grassin-Baledan, a French inventor received a patent for his version of barbed wire. He created a form that was used to protect trees against wildlife and animals. It is said this version did what it was meant to do, but it was challenging to produce and use on a large scale. Farmers and ranchers didn’t necessarily see a use for it yet. Seven years later Lucien B. Smith obtained a patent on his version of barbed wire, which he named “thorny wire”, although that too didn’t see any mass-production or use. According to a Popular Science article, between 1867 and 1874 over 200 different patents for “spiked fencing” were processed. There were variations in the design; some had alternating spikes or wood with studded tips. But all of these types of barbed wire were still made by hand, thus making it inefficient for mass production.
Now, as for Joseph Glidden, his success was in part thanks to the favourable circumstances. His timing was perfect and his product was better than that of his competitors because it could be mechanically-produced. As for the timing, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act opened up millions of acres. Any adult could apply and claim 160 hectares if they were willing to settle on, and farm the land. But because of the rough conditions, there was a lack of trees, and wooden fences weren’t that efficient to close off land.
In the little American town of Dekalb in Illinois, Glidden purchased 243 hectares of ground where he wanted to establish a cattle ranch. It was challenging to keep the cattle in the enclosed area; the story goes that the cattle regularly broke out, only to start grazing in the vegetable garden his wife tended to. After some brainstorming Joseph thought of a solution: he bought multiple rolls of iron wire. He then used a coffee mill to wrap the wire tightly around barbs, and used a second wire to keep the barbs in place. The final product was very effective. It kept the cattle in check and at the same time was a great way to mark his lands.
He patented barbed wire in 1874, but before long questions arose about its originality. Glidden ended up involved in a legal dispute, which was not settled until 1892. You can view the original case of 1892 on the official website, of which the link is in the description. Already before Glidden won the case he established the “Barb’s Fence Company” in DeKalb. It led to him rapidly earning enough to become a wealthy and affluent businessman. Glidden ended up with five patents on barbed wire and by 1877 he was already producing three million pounds of barbed wire annually.
Because of its simplicity news rapidly spread and in the region dozens of barbed wire factories sprung up. Not all of these factories held the patent, and as such, the illegal production of barbed wire too increased. One of the best examples is that of John “Bet-A-Million” Warne Gates. According to the Texas State Historical Association, he built the largest manufacturer and distributor of unlicensed non-patented, so-called moonshine, barbed wire, earning him quite the fortune.
The popularity of barbed wire grew across the nation, and as news about this efficient method to keep cattle enclosed spread throughout the United States, everyone wanted a piece. The wire, at first glance, didn’t seem as sturdy as a wooden fence. So imagine the surprise when a cheap and seemingly weak wire managed to stop cattle from breaking out. It only added to the enthusiasm surrounding the product.
To give you an idea: in 1884 the newspaper ‘The Prairie Farmer’ published a special edition about the ‘phenomenon that in industrialised history has met no equal.’ And the sales numbers backed that up. In 1882 the same newspaper published some statistics about barbed wire: that year 82 million kilos were sold, an 18000-fold increase since 1874. Joseph Gidden managed to become a millionaire, a rare feat at the time. Throughout the years he became, besides a businessman, the sheriff, member of the Board of Supervisors of Dekalb County and member of the executive committee of agriculture. In 1876 he even was the candidate for the democratic party for the US Senate elections. At the time of Glidden’s death in 1906, he was among the richest men of the United States, having a net worth of around a million dollars including the Glidden House Hotel, the DeKalb Rolling Mill, a factory, the DeKalb Chronicle newspaper and farming grounds in Illinois and Texas. The little town Glidden in Iowa is named after him.
Barbed Wire in War
The invention of barbed wire did influence the history of the United States significantly, and world history as well. As for the United States, it led to the rapid progression of the final stage of colonisation and the trek westward. Barbed wire made it incredibly easy to enclose private territory, which led to an end of the real Wild West.
The volume of confrontations between farmers and cattle ranchers increased. Farmers that marked their territory with barbed wire in effect closing it off to third parties, and made it impossible for other cattle to graze on it. There even is a Lucky Luke story about this development: Barbed Wire on the Prairie. In effect, the cowboys and cattle ranchers had to start sharing the Wild West with farmers. Because of the ability to fence off property, the gap between landless and landowning-classes became more apparent than it had been.
By 1885, only 11 years after Glidden started the mass-production of barbed wire, the entire Texas Panhandle was wired. Its effects, aside from clashes between cattle ranchers and farmers, was disastrous for wildlife. Suddenly many animals could not exploit their natural habitat anymore, losing meadows they grazed on or springs they used to drink out of. Wild buffalo, known for having impaired vision, could not see the wire and often became entangled in it, dying of hunger, thirst or their wounds. It was the reason Native Americans referred to it as the devil’s rope.
Aside from the Wild West, barbed wire became an icon of the horrors of the First World War. . Aside from the trenches, it was used to close off borders. One of the notorious examples is the Dodendraad, the wire of death: a lethal electric fence put up by the German military to control the Dutch-Belgian border during the First World War. These fences were put up to prevent smuggling and military desertions. The wire of death on the border caused dozens of deaths between 1915 and 1918, often killing smugglers, but occasionally unaware citizens too.
But the Dodendraad is a pretty uncommon example for the use of barbed wire. Because trench warfare and the no man’s land between the German and French trenches are more potent icons of the misery of the First World War. Over a million miles of barbed wire was laid out on the Western front during the war. Everyone knows the photographs of bodies hanging in it. During this war barbed wire became a symbol of the hopelessness of trench warfare and the millions of lives wasted on the frontlines, in suicidal charges.
Yet although it was deadly and used for those horrors, we cannot deny its success. A testament to the success of barbed wire is the incredible amount of variations of it. In Jack Glover’s ‘The Bobbed Wire Bible’, published in 1972, over 700 types of barbed wire knots are listed. And even nowadays developments aren’t finished yet. In the 1980s the substance of the steel wires was mixed with carbon fibre, creating more flexible, yet still strong and durable wires. By subjecting the wires to extreme heat the carbon molecules crystallised. Evoking this chemical reaction, in short drastically decreases the weight of the wire whilst maintaining its strength. In addition, during the early 21st century, the contents of the coating of anti-rust for the wire changed. This led to the tripling, if not quadrupling of the life expectancy of barbed wire. As such even though officially barbed wire entered the stage during the 19th century, and it changed the entire world, even today it is still not done developing.