The History of Barbed Wire

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Podcast Transcript

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, there was a rush of people who moved west to claim the free land that was offered. 

However, there was a problem. Creating physical divisions for plots of land on the prairie was difficult when there was no stone or wood. 

Eventually, there was a solution to the problem, which offered a cheap way to divide land…and created a whole host of new problems as well. 

Learn more about barbed wire and how it shaped the American West, warfare, and much more, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The idea of dividing up land goes back a long way. When early farmers were tending their land, they often killed two birds with one stone. They would clear their land of stones and rocks and then pile them up on the dividing line.

Another option that has been practiced for centuries is the planting of hedgerows. These were bushes or shrubs which were planted along the borders between farms. 

The oldest evidence of hedgerows goes back almost 6000 years. 

England and Ireland are still filled with farmland divided up by hedges and stonewalls, some of which were created over 700 years ago. 

When Europeans came to North America, they used many of the same practices of dividing up farmland. With the ample forests found in the area, they could also create fences made of wood. 

Compared to the rest of world history, the expansion of the United States was quite rapid. But when the Homestead Act was signed in 1862, things went into overdrive. 

The American government, giving absolutely no consideration to the native people who already lived there, wanted to encourage as many Americans as possible to settle the vast American West. 

For just the price of a small fee for filing the paperwork, anyone would get 160 acres of federal land. 

This led to a literal land rush of people moving west to claim this free land after about 1870 with the end of the Civil War.

Most of the first land claimed was the closest land to the eastern states, the Great Plains. The Great Plains are a vast grassland that is devoid in fence and wall-making materials such as rocks and wood. Likewise, given the speed of the spread into the west, there wasn’t time to grow hedgerows. 

So, there was a problem and a great deal of demand for a solution. 

The first person to propose using wire as a barrier was the French inventor Leonce Eugene Grassin-Baledans in 1860. His fence received several patents, but he never created an actual commercial product. 

The idea of using wire fencing to contain animals was proposed by a New York blacksmith named Michael Kelly in 1868.

Before Kelly, wire fences consisted of a single wire. Single wire fences were easy to break if an animal leaned against it. Kelly used two strands of wire and twisted them together. 

Not only did they make the fence stronger, but it allowed for a sharp barb to be wound between the wires. The barbs made cattle stay away from the fence because the barbs would poke them. 

This fence became known as a “thorny fence.”

Kelly wasn’t the only person working on barbed wire. There were no fewer than four patents for barbed wire in the United States by 1870. 

As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes about inventions, the person who came up with the initial idea isn’t necessarily the person credited with the discovery.  The key to most inventions is developing a practical solution that could actually be brought to market.

The person who is usually credited with barbed wire is Joseph Glidden. Glidden was a farmer from DeKalb, Illinois. He developed his barbed wire with a coffee grinder to make the barbs and called his design “the winner.”

He and a business partner established the Barbed Wire Company in De Kalb. He ended up becoming one of the richest men in America.

He had to deal with a host of legal issues to preserve his patent. The biggest problem was that there were many different barbed wire designs, and they were all pretty similar. The Glidden design just wrapped the barb around one wire twice before the two wires were intertwined. 

One of his biggest legal battles was with another De Kalb resident, Jacob Haish, who challenged Glidden’s design as being a novel innovation.

Glidden eventually won out, and his company went on to mass produce barbed wire during the 1870s. His wasn’t the only company, however. There were four major manufacturers of barbed wire in the United States at this time.

Barbed wire wasn’t adopted immediately. Some ranchers were concerned that it would hurt cattle, but a series of demonstrations proved to farmers that cattle weren’t harmed. 

There were also disagreements between farmers and ranchers. Farmers wanted barbed wire more than ranchers did.  

The economics of barbed wire eventually won out. The fact was it was really cheap to deploy. 

While Glidden’s company was the industry leader, the market was soon flooded by barbed wire manufacturers. It was cheap to make, and all you had to do was use a slightly different design to be on legally safe ground. 

There were over 150 different barbed wire manufacturers in the late 19th century in the United States before a period of consolidation in the industry.

As barbed wire was deployed across the American West, it radically changed the landscape. 

Fences prevented the annual cattle drives from north to south, where they would move from pasture to pasture. In 1885, as many as 75% of the cattle in the plains died due to being unable to move around the long stretch of barbed wire fences. 

This led to an episode known as the Fence Cutting Wars. This was an attempt by smaller ranchers to keep an open range by destroying barbed wire fences. To be fair, many of the big cattle ranchers were literally putting fences over public roads and across public land.

Eventually, the large ranchers agreed to some reasonable limits on where fences could be put, and the legislatures in affected states put heavy penalties on cutting barbed wire fences. In the end, three people died in the fence-cutting wars.

Many historians consider the spread of barbed wire as the end of the old west. 

Perhaps the biggest victims of barbed wire were the plains Indians. It prevented the nomadic migrations that they had been used to for millennia. 

In addition to bison being killed in incredible numbers, which they relied on, their grazing land was radically diminished, which only compounded the near extinction of the bison. 

This is the reason why the Indians called it the devil’s rope.

One of the biggest innovations to barbed wire was electrification. The patent for an electrified fence was awarded in 1886, and it was initially used on many barbed wire fences because they were already made out of wire that could carry an electrical current. 

Today, electrified fences are seldom made out of barbed wire because it increases the risk of cattle being stuck on the fence and unable to free themselves, and the whole point of an electric fence is to get people or animals away from it.

Barbed wire didn’t take long to find uses outside farming and ranching. 

The first recorded military use of barbed wire occurred in 1895 by Portuguese troops in Mozambique. 

However, it didn’t take long for it to become common in defensive fortifications. 

During the Boer War in South Africa, barbed wire was used by the Boers during the siege of Mafeking to keep the British inside the city. The hero of Mafeking, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who later became the founder of the boy scouts, noticed that he couldn’t actually see the wire because it was so thin.

So, he figured that if he couldn’t see their wire, they couldn’t see their barbed wire. They didn’t actually have any barbed wire, so he had his men go out in front of the city to install posts and pretend that they were stringing barbed wire. 

The Boers were totally fooled.

Barbed wire became a key element of trench warfare in the first world war. A line of barbed wire in front of a trench would make it very difficult for a direct assault  The act of climbing over, under, or even cutting the wire would slow down enemy forces enough for machine guns to cut them down. 

Dead bodies stuck on barbed wire in no man’s land became one of the defining images of the war for many soldiers. 

Barbed wire isn’t lethal but it can be very painful. When I was 12 years old, I cut my leg trying to climb over a barbed wire fence, and I still have the scar today. 

The biggest development in barbed wire in the 20th century was making the barbs more dangerous by turning them into razors. Known as razor wire, this is almost never used for animals and is almost exclusively used to contain or control people. 

The earliest form of razor wire was called a taped barb, which was just a flat, pointy piece of metal instead of a pointy piece of wire. It was a pretty short step from barbed tape to razor wire, as you only had to sharpen the metal tape.

The typical deployment of razor wire today is called concertina wire. It is a wire which is deployed in the form of large coils.

It is named after the instrument called a concertina which is a small handheld accordion.

Concertina wire has several benefits over regular wire. For starters, it can be deployed very rapidly. You can put canisters of it on the back of a truck and let it uncoil out of the backend as you drive. 

Second, it can create a natural obstacle. A regular barbed wire fence has height but no width. Concertina wire has both height and width. You can deploy it in a triangular formation with two coils on the bottom and one on the top, which makes it an even more imposing barrier.

In the 150 years since barbed wire was invented, there have been over 2,000 types which have been developed. 

There are people who collect barbed wire, and there is a barbed wire museum in LaCrosse, Kansas, which calls itself the barbed wire capital of the world. 

Barbed wire is a very simple thing that most people don’t think about, yet it has profoundly influenced history. The American West, the first world war, and even the incarceration system all have been shaped by this simple invention which has earned its nickname as the “devil’s rope.”