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1874 One Hundred And Twenty Five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

The Wiring of the West

On November 24 Joseph F. Glidden of De Kalb, Illinois, received U.S. patent 157,124 for an invention that would be just as important as railroads and the Colt .45 in shaping the West: barbed wire. As the frontier advanced, stockmen and farmers existed side by side, which meant the farmers had to protect their crops from roving animals. Since trees were extremely scarce on the Great Plains, wood fences were too expensive. Plain wire fencing was cheaper, but it could easily be knocked over by a hungry beast. Barbed wire eliminated this problem with sharp attachments that animals learned to avoid.

In 1868 Michael Kelly of New York City patented the first practical design for an armored wire fence. Although he managed to sell a few thousand tons, it was hard to produce and still too costly. Then in 1873 Glidden and his friends Isaac Ellwood and Jacob Haish visited the De Kalb county fair. There they saw an inventor displaying a sixteen-foot strip of wood studded with protruding brads. It was meant to be attached to a wire fence to keep cows away. While effective, the device was too expensive and cumbersome for most farmers. Still, the idea was sound, and all three men began tinkering with ways to incorporate sharp points into a fence itself.

Glidden developed a pattern that he called the Winner. Its main advantage was that its barbs were made of wire instead of metal ribbon (as in Kelly’s product), so it could easily be mass-produced by machine. Haish, who would become Glidden’s bitter rival, patented his own design, known as “S” wire, which embodied the same principle. Meanwhile, inventors across the country continued devising variations of their own.

Glidden and Ellwood went into business together. They had two big advantages over Haish and the others: a partnership with Washburn & Moen, the giant Massachusetts wire manufacturer, and a cleverly worded patent that turned most other barbed-wire inventors, including Haish, into infringers. Litigation dragged on for years, and the Supreme Court did not extinguish the final challenge to Glidden’s patent until 1892, a year after it had expired. In the meantime, sales skyrocketed to more than 170,000 tons a year, and the barbed-wire industry became the equivalent of today’s Internet gold rush.

Anyone who came up with a slight modification of the basic design could receive a patent (as more than four hundred inventors did) or simply go into business without one (like perhaps fifteen hundred others). Washburn S Moen pursued such competitors vigorously, usually either winning suits against them or buying them out. Although Haish’s patent was eventually nullified, he got rich anyway by designing a machine that manufactured barbed wire much more efficiently than the modified coffee grinder Glidden had been using.

While farmers hailed barbed wire as a godsend, it was controversial in cattle country. Before barbed wire, cattlemen had grazed and watered their herds on public lands. With no need to own property, even small operators could take advantage of the open range. Once barbed wire became available, though, rich men started buying up large tracts and enclosing them. (One of these was Glidden, who kept 15,000 cattle on 180,000 acres in Texas.) Some stockmen illegally enclosed land they did not own.

Barbed wire decreased the need for labor, reduced cattle losses, and made it worthwhile to invest in improvements like windmills, which could pump water from hundreds of feet underground. Since herds no longer mingled, a cattleman could buy a high-grade breeding bull and be sure of getting its exclusive use. As a result, blooded stock soon replaced the tough but scrawny Texas longhorn. At the same time, the need to buy and enclose land greatly increased the investment necessary to start a herd. Thus the invention that ensured the survival of thousands of family farms was also responsible for the establishment of enormous ranches by wealthy cattle barons.

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