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Barbed-wire Wars

May 2020

In the article “Good Fences” (February/ March), by Alexander O. Boulton, it was stated that barbed wire was an “1873 invention.” While 1873 was the year that Joseph F. Glidden applied for his patent on an “improvement in wire fences,” it cannot be said, except in a strict legal sense, that barbed wire was invented in 1873. The invention of barbed wire, as with most successful inventions, was more a developmental process than an event.

In 1867 both William D. Hunt of Scott, New York, and Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, applied for and were granted U.S. patents on the idea of barbing wire fence. These were the earliest patents for barbed wire. In 1868 Michael Kelly, of New York City, patented the idea of holding the barb in place by another wire twisted around it. These three basic patents were important in establishing the barbed-wire industry, and there was substantial jockeying for the rights in these inventions. The barbed wire described by Hunt and Smith was commercially impractical and never went into general use. There is no doubt, however, that Kelly invented a practical barbed wire. Sales of the Kelly wire approached three thousand tons per year in the early 1870s.

The race was on. A frontier industry was developing. Before the dust settled, more than four hundred U.S. patents were issued for this invention and its variations and improvements.

Glidden’s idea, in 1873, was to use a wire barb, rather than a flat piece of metal, coiled around one of the wires, and it was a valuable contribution to the industry. Sales of Glidden wire by the patent owner, the Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company, rose rapidly from 50 tons in 1874 to 44,000 tons in 1886, and licensees of the patent sold 173,000 tons in 1887.

The struggle for control of the barbed-wire industry wound through the federal courts during the decades of the 187Os and 188Os and culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1892, when the Glidden patent was held to be valid, confirming Washburn & Moen as the dominant company. It is interesting to note that three months before the date of the Supreme Court opinion, the Glidden patent had expired, and anyone was free to manufacture or sell Glidden wire. Still under patent protection, however, was the automatic machinery used to make the wire. Glidden wire carried the trade name The Winner. The Supreme Court made it a fact.

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