States Patent #157,124 was granted to Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois
on November 24th, 1874 for improved barbed wire fencing.
Life in the American West was reshaped
by a series of patents for a simple tool that helped ranchers tame the
land: barbed wire. Nine patents for improvements to wire fencing were granted
by the U.S. Patent Office to American inventors, beginning with Michael
Kelly in November 1868 and ending with Joseph Glidden in November 1874.
The new fencing not only simplified the work of the rancher and farmer,
but it significantly affected political, social, and economic practices
throughout the region. The swift emergence of this highly effective tool
as the favored fencing method influenced life in the region as dramatically
as the rifle, six-shooter, telegraph,
Barbed wire was extensively adopted
because it proved ideal for western conditions. Vast and undefined prairies
and plains yielded to range management, farming, and ultimately, widespread
settlement. As the use of barbed wire increased, wide open spaces became
less wide, less open, and less spacious, and the days of the free roaming
cowboy were numbered.
Before the invention of barbed wire,
the lack of effective fencing limited the range of farming and ranching
practices, and with it, the number of people who could settle in an area.
Wooden fences were costly and difficult to acquire on the prairie and plains,
where few trees grew. Lumber was in such short supply in the region that
farmers were forced to build houses of sod. Likewise, rocks for stone walls—commonly
found in New England—were scarce on the plains. Shrubs and hedges, early
substitutes for wood and rock fencing materials, took too long to grow
to become of much use in the rapidly expanding West. Barbed wire was cheaper,
easier, and quicker to use than any of these other alternatives.
fencing, livestock grazed freely, competing for fodder and water. Where
working farms existed, most property was unfenced and open to foraging
cattle and sheep. Once a year, cattle owners, unhindered by fenced property
lines, led their herds on long cattle drives, eventually arriving at slaughter-houses
located near urban railheads for shipping convenience. The appearance of
barbed wire meant the end of both the open range and the freedom of the
rancher and cowboy, an event lamented in the Cole Porter song "Don't Fence
Wire fences used before the invention
of the barb consisted of only one strand of wire, which was constantly
broken by the weight of cattle pressing against it. Michael Kelly made
a significant improvement to wire fencing with an invention that "twisted
two wires together to form a cable for barbs—the first of its kind in America,"
according to Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum, the authors of The Wire
That Fenced the West. Known as the "thorny fence," Kelly's double-strand
design made the fence stronger, and the painful barbs taught cattle to
keep their distance.
Predictably, other inventors sought
to improve upon Kelly's designs; among them was Joseph Glidden, a farmer
from De Kalb, IL. In 1873 and 1874, patents were issued for various designs
to strengthen Kelly's invention, but the recognized winner in this series
of improvements was Glidden's simple wire barb locked onto a double-strand
wire. Glidden's invention made barbed wire more effective not only because
he described a method for locking the barbs in place, but also because
he developed the machinery to mass-produce the wire. His invention also
survived court challenges from other inventors. Glidden's patent, prevailing
in both litigation and sales, was soon known as "the winner." Today, it
remains the most familiar style of barbed wire.
The widespread use of barbed wire
changed life on the Great Plains dramatically and permanently. Land and
water once open to all was fenced off by ranchers and homesteaders with
predictable results. Cattlemen, increasingly cut off from what they regarded
as common-use resources in such territories as Texas, New Mexico, Colorado,
and Wyoming, first filed land-use petitions and then waged fierce range
wars against the property-owning farmers. Gradually, there was a discernible
shift in who controlled the land and thus wielded the superior power.
Living patterns of nomadic Native
Americans were radically altered, as well. Further squeezed from lands
they had always used, they began calling barbed wire "the Devil's rope."
Fenced-off land meant that more and more cattle herders—regardless of race—were
dependent on the dwindling public lands, which rapidly became overgrazed.
The harsh winter of 1886, culminating in a big January 1887 blizzard, wreaked
further havoc on the cattle market: losses totaled more than $20 million
in Wyoming alone. In effect, large-scale, open-range cattle enterprises
While barbed wire symbolized the
range wars and the end of widespread open grazing land for livestock in
the American West, it also became a widely used commodity elsewhere, especially
during land warfare. In early European history, pointed spears or palisades
circumferentially surrounded many castles for protection. Barbed wire rapidly
replaced these and other devices used to protect people and property from
unwanted intrusion. Military usage of barbed wire formally dates to 1888,
when British military manuals first encouraged its use.
During the Spanish American War,
Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders chose to defend their camps with the help
of barbed fencing. In turn-of-the-century South Africa, five-strand fences
were linked to blockhouses sheltering British troops from the encroachment
of Boer commandos. During World War I, barbed wire was used as a military
weapon. It was a formidable barrier along the front, stretching from Switzerland
to the English Channel. Even now, barbed wire is widely used to protect
and safeguard military installations and to establish territorial boundaries.
It has also emerged as a commonly recognized instrument for prisoner confinement;
the image of a corpse caught on the wires of a concentration camp fence
has become the emblem of war's ravages. Today, barbed wire is often part
of the containment wall of prisons all over the world.
Other less emotionally charged uses
of barbed fencing exist in industry. Used on construction and storage sites
and around warehouses, barbed wire protects supplies and persons and keeps
out unwanted intruders. In any event, it has proved both highly useful
and highly significant in altering traditional practices during both war
Glidden's patent, No. 157124, was
issued November 24, 1874.