The Story of the Barbed Wire

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Barbed wire was invented in 1860 in France by Leonce Eugene Grassin-Baledans. But, it was Joseph F. Glidden, an American farmer, in 1873, who is often credited for designing the first commercially successful barbed wire. Prof. Ashoka tells us about the famous inventions that changed human life, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Fencing consisting of flat and thin wire was first proposed in 1860 in France by Leonce Eugene Grassin-Baledans. His design had bristling points creating a fence that was painful to cross. Numerous patents followed, but none of these wires were ever commercially produced.

In 1868, a blacksmith named Michael Kelly from New York was granted a patent for fencing specifically for deterring animals. The first wire fences consisted only of one strand of wire, which was frequently broken by the weight of cattle pressing against it. Kelly made a significant improvement by twisting two wires together. Known as the thorny fence, Kelly’s double-strand design was the first successful barbed wire.

Joseph F. Glidden, an American farmer, is often credited for designing the first commercially successful barbed wire. Glidden’s idea came from a display at a fair in DeKalb, Illinois, in 1873. There he saw a wooden fence with wire protrusions designed to deter cows. Legend states that Glidden’s wife Lucinda encouraged him to enclose her garden with his idea. He then won several court battles over the rights to his invention, a simple wire barb locked onto a double-strand wire, so it came to be known as The Winner.

Glidden and a partner established the Barb Fence Company in DeKalb to manufacture The Winner. They invented a method for locking the barbs in place and the machinery to mass-produce it. By the time of his death, Glidden was one of the richest men in America. Today his design remains the most familiar style of barbed wire.

The main changes that have been made to barbed wire since the 1870s have been to reduce injuries by increasing visibility. For example, Jacob and Warren Brinkerhoff introduced twisted and flat wires in 1879 and 1881. The American Steel and Wire Company eventually became the dominant manufacturer. They controlled all aspects of production from producing the steel rods to making many different wire and nail products from it.

Barbed wire has had important social and economic effects, particularly in the American West. It allowed ranchers to enclose their land and confine formerly free-range herds of cattle. It also severely affected the livelihoods of Native Americans who gave it the mournful nickname Devil’s rope. Barbed wire has also seen extensive use in warfare, beginning with the Spanish-American War in 1898. In World War I, the tank as we know it was invented to smash through barbed wire defenses.

Serialised from the book, Popular Triumphs of Human Innovation in Everyday Life by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.