When I was a pre-teen and teenager in Arizona, I had many occasions to encounter barber wire fencing. I often had to undo barbed wire gates that blocked roads or make my way between the strands of barbed wire to continue hiking or hunting and yes, I’ve had my shares of cuts and scrapes caused by the sharp points on the barber wire.
In my later teens, I had the privilege of helping to strand barbed wire. We were replacing old rusted wire with new sharp barbed wire. It was part of the fencing that marked the boundary of a ranch in southeastern Arizona, however you may be surprised to learn that barbed wire did not originate in the wild west.
Almost everyone who has lived in the western US and many other locations as well have encountered or see barbed wire fencing. Many of have seen 3 to 5 strands of barbed wire fencing running along roads and highways.
On this day, October 27, 1873, Joseph Farwell Glidden applied for a patent for a new type of barbed wire fencing that literally changed the American west along with many parts of the country and world. Glidden did not live in the American west but rather he developed the barbed wire to use on his farm a mile west of DeKalb, Illinois.
Glidden was not the first to invent barbed wire but his patent greatly improved the existing barbed wire in use. While attending a county fair in DeKalb County, Glidden saw a display of a barbed wire that was made of only 1-strand of flat wire that contained the barbs inserted through holes in the flat wire. This original single strand flat wire method was patented by Michael Kelly on November 17, 1868.
The Glidden invention started back in the early 1870s when his wife Lucinda complained that the cows were getting into her yard. After seeing the single-strand barbed wire at the county fair, Glidden began experimenting but found it difficult to produce a useable single-strand barbed wire himself.
With the help of a local blacksmith, the two men refashioned a coffee mill into something that would put a tight twist in the wire which was cut for the barbs. However, he was using a round wire on which to place the sharp barbed coils.
On May 12, 1874, Glidden was issued his first patent for an improvement on Kelly’s barbed wire. He placed 2 coils aligned opposite each other so they presented 4 harp points at 90 degree angles from each other.
On November 24, 1874, Glidden was awarded another patent for his new improved 2-strand barbed wire. According to the Glidden Homestead:
“But on November 24, Glidden patented still another improvement (The Winner), substituting a double twisted wire for the single wire, upon which was fixed a piece of pointed wire coiled in the center, forming two transverse points.”
“From manufacturing a few of these by hand on his farm, Glidden progressed to making the material by horse-power, using at first a single horse to propel his imperfect machinery, which over the years was improved until “its perfection is a matter of astonishment to all beholders,” according to the history of DeKalb County.
“’This machinery, together with the extensive establishment, has all been created out of the raw material within the incredibly short period of two years, during which time the large sums of money expended have been made in the business itself; so that it has been self-developing and self-supporting, and has created in addition a large surplus. The secret of its financial success is the fact that it has met a want everywhere urgently felt all over the great prairie country of the West; and the vast territory being of such varied climate that the demand is as great in winter as in summer. At no time during any of the seasons, is there not fencing going on in some portion of the great field in which this fence is demanded–in Illinois or Iowa, in Texas or California,’ the history reported.”
“Glidden first convinced his neighbors of the practicability of the invention by making it with his own hands and setting off his farm portions with the fence. As these experiments were gradually improved and exhibited, the demand for the fence became urgent. In July, 1874, Glidden entered into partnership with the young, energetic Isaac L. Ellwood, and commenced manufacturing in the City of DeKalb. The business soon outgrew their facilities and in the winter of 1874-75, they erected a larger building.”
“In 1876 Glidden ‘retired’ from manufacturing by selling his half of the business to Washburn and Moen, but retained royalties. The Glidden Barbed Wire company evolved into American Steel and eventually was incorporated into the U.S. Steel Manufacturing Company of today.”
Before Glidden’s invention of the 2-strand barbed wire and his development of a way to easily produce it, it became the fencing of choice for farmers and ranchers throughout the west and Midwest. Prior to the barbed wire, many ranches and farms were open, or only fenced, with smooth wire that didn’t stop livestock from breaching the fencing. Using barbed wire was quickly found to effectively contain livestock as cattle would learn not of venture into the barbs and get cut and stuck in the fencing.
Today, you will find millions of miles of Glidden’s barbed wire marking the boundaries of ranches and farms throughout the west entire nation and world. The barbed wire enclosed ranches literally change the face and way of life of the American west.
Sources for the above includes: Joseph Glidden Applies for A Patent on His Barbed Wire Design; Barbed Wire: The Saga; Barbed Wire: Cultural Impact; The Biographies of the Inventors;