The Van Trump Report

It Was the Invention of “Barbed Wire” that Helped Tame the West

Alongside the Colt pistol and the railroad, barbed wire is usually listed as one of the three main factors in how the West was won. Following the Homestead Act of 1862, millions of acres of the western United States were opened up to farming and new settlers needed something to protect their crops from free-roaming cattle and bison. Wooden fencing was expensive because the plains lacked trees, and furthermore it was susceptible to fire. Simple wire fences were light, inexpensive, and easy to erect. The wind didn’t blow them down and snow didn’t pile up against them.

Thorny hedges were perfect barriers for cattle, but planting thousands of miles of bushes was impracticable. Some kind of fence that mimicked the thorn bushes was needed, but how could you make such a fence? So began a low-tech prairie version of the internet boom in which hundreds of entrepreneurs from across the country rushed to create a new type of spiky fencing. 

The idea for the original barbed wire likely occurred just prior to 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. The Homestead Act allowed claimants of 160 acres of government land to establish a home and receive ownership after five years of residency and improvements. The problem of buffalo and free-grazing cattle destroying crops soon reached disastrous proportions. And the split rail and rock fences used on eastern farms were not available in the west.

Between 1867 and 1874 alone as many as 200 different types of spiked fencing were patented. It was late-June 1867, that Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, patented the first barbed wire. Shortly thereafter, several other inventors patented inventions for similar products, but Smith patented his first, allowing him to claim that he invented barbed wire. Smith claimed that his fencing, made of iron wire, was “specially adapted to use in the prairies of the Western States, where timber is scarce and fires frequently sweep over them.” Smith suggested that Westerners should use iron poles to support their fencing to make it more fire-resistant.

The problem with many of these early designs was that the barbs had to be clamped to their wire individually by hand. This was a slow, tedious and often painful business. 

It was in 1874 that inspiration struck. Unfortunately, it hit two people at once. Joseph Glidden and Jacob Haish both patented a type of double-stranded barbed wire in which a barb could be mechanically placed on one wire with the other wire being twisted around it to hold it in place. This simple design innovation is the basis for the barbed wire we know today. 

A patent battle ensued between Glidden and Haish with Glidden eventually triumphing and magnanimously branding his design, “The Winner.” He soon became one of the richest men in America. Eventually, manufacturers produced more than +1,500 different types of barbed wire. 

Many historians argue that Smith, Glidden, and the other barbed wire inventions revolutionized the West. The cheap cost of barbed wire allowed farmers to fence in their fields. If ranchers used barbed wire to surround their fields, they could prevent other people from encroaching on their lands and keep their livestock from getting confused with someone else’s herds. Interesting how a simple solution like barbed wire became a game-changer for agriculture across the US. (Source: Wiki, AtlasObscura)

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