Life in the American West was reshaped by a series of patents for a simple tool – barbed wire – that helped ranchers tame the land. Patents for improvements to wire fencing were granted by the U.S. Patent Office, beginning with Michael Kelly in November 1868 and ending with Joseph Glidden in November 1874, that shape the history of this tool.
Thorny Fence Vs Wild West
The swift emergence of this highly effective tool as the favored fencing method changed life in the wild west as dramatically as the rifle, six-shooter, telegraph, windmill, and locomotive.
Without fencing, livestock grazed freely, competing for fodder and water. Where working farms did exist, most property was unfenced and open to foraging by roaming cattle and sheep.
Before barbed wire, the lack of effective fencing limited farming and ranching practices, and the number of people who could settle in an area. The new fencing changed the West from vast and undefined prairies/plains to a land of farming, and widespread settlement.
Why Use Wire?
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 were scarce on the plains. Barbed wire proved to be cheaper, easier, and quicker to use than any of these other alternatives.
Michael Kelly – First BW Fencing
The first wire fences (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, he twisted two wires together to form a cable for barbs – the first of its kind. Known as the “thorny fence,” Michael Kelly’s double-strand design made fences stronger, and the painful barbs made cattle keep their distance.
Joseph Glidden – King of the Barb
Predictably, other inventors sought to improve upon Michael Kelly’s design; among them was Joseph Glidden, a farmer from De Kalb, IL.
In 1873 and 1874, patents were issued for various designs to compete against Micheal Kelly’s invention. But the recognized winner was Joseph Glidden’s design for a simple wire barb locked onto a double-strand wire.
Joseph Glidden’s design made barbed wire more effective, he invented a method for locking the barbs in place, and invented the machinery to mass-produce the wire.
Joseph Glidden’s U.S. patent was issued November 24, 1874. His patent survived court challenges from other inventors. Joseph Glidden prevailed in litigation and in sales. Today, it remains the most familiar style of barbed wire.
Living patterns of the nomadic Native Americans were radically altered. Further squeezed from lands they had always used, they began calling barbed wire “the Devil’s rope.”
More fenced-off land meant that cattle herders were dependent on the dwindling public lands, which rapidly became overgrazed. Cattle herding was destined to become extinct.
BW & Warfare & Security
After its invention, barbed wire was widely used during wars, 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.
Even now, barbed wire is widely used to protect and safeguard military installation, to establish territorial boundaries, and for prisoner confinement.
Used on construction and storage sites and around warehouses, barbed wire protects supplies and persons and keeps out unwanted intruders.