|Date(s):||November 24, 1874|
|Location(s):||Washington City, District of Columbia|
|Tag(s):||invention, Agriculture, American West|
|Course:||“Civil War and Reconstruction,” Juniata College|
|Rating:||4.09 (146 votes)|
On November 24, 1874, the United States Patent Office issued Patent No. 157124 to Joseph F. Glidden of De Kalb, Illinois. Glidden invented “a new and valuable improvement in wire fences,” with the goal to “preserve cattle from breaking through wire fences…the fence wire is composed of two strands which are designed to be twisted together after the spur.” The United States Patent Office issued a total of nine patents for wire fence improvements in the five years leading up to and including Glidden’s. Michael Kelly was issued the first patent in November, 1868. Glidden’s barbed wire, however, proved to be the most popular and most effective. According to historian James Roark, the invention of barbed wire changed America’s west by “revolution[izing] the cattle business and sounded the death knell for the open range.”
Before barbed wire, if ranchers wanted a fence for their livestock they made it out of wood which was expensive because it was scarce in some parts of the west and had to be shipped in from the east. Wire fences before barbed wire consisted of a single strand of wire that could easily be broken by cattle. Without fencing to keep cattle in, the bovines grazed freely competing for grass and water and destroying crops like wheat. Every year, cattle owners led their herds to slaughter houses unhindered by wire fencing. Barbed wire limited the open range and in turn limited the freedom of ranchers and cowboys.
Barbed wire had a major impact on the many settlers and nomadic Native Americans living in the west. Previously, the land was open for public use with many ranchers’ cattle roaming freely, eating, and drinking. Now, ranchers and settlers fenced off their land with many believing they were being cut off from necessities. This started many disputes, and eventually led to a concentration of power in the hands of the land owners. The wealthy ranchers started fencing their land and individuals with livestock but no land had nowhere for their livestock because much of the public land was becoming too overgrazed. For the small-time ranchers, many had to sell out to large ranches, and then many had become wage workers for the large ranches. Nomadic Native Americans used to roam freely, but now these barbed wire fences began to limit their movements. Some even began calling barbed wire the “Devil’s Rope.”
The invention of barbed wire changed the west permanently by limiting the open range and starting many fights over land. Glidden did not invent barbed wire, but simply made the best improvement of Kelly’s first design. Besides having the most effective barbed wire by locking the barbs into place with a double strand of wire, Glidden also invented the machine that mass-produced his barbed wire. Glidden’s patent was challenged in 1892, and in 1895 he won his case and can be considered the Father of Barbed Wire.