Background of barbed wire

The first patent in the United States for barbed wire was issued in 1867 to Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, who is regarded as the inventor. Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, received a patent for the modern invention in 1874 after he made his own modifications to previous versions.

This was simply a wooden block with wire protrusions designed to keep cows from breaching the fence. That day, Glidden was accompanied by two other men, Isaac L. Ellwood, a hardware dealer and Jacob Haish, a lumber merchant. Like Glidden, they both wanted to create a more durable wire fence with fixed barbs. Glidden experimented with a grindstone to twist two wires together to hold the barbs on the wire in place. The barbs were created from experiments with a coffee mill from his home.

Barbed wire is a fencing material consisting of a metal cable with regularly spaced sharp projections. The cable usually consists of two wires twisted around each other to add strength and to allow the cable to expand and contract with temperature changes without breaking. The sharp points, called barbs, usually consist of short pieces of wire twisted around one or both of the cable wires.

Fences of various kinds have been used since the earliest days of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Fences have been built from wood, earth, stone, and living plants (hedges in Europe and cactus in Latin America). Metal was not used for fencing until steel wire became available in the 19th century.

Short lengths of wire were first made at least 5,000 years ago by hammering pliable metals such as gold. By the year 1000, longer lengths of wire were made by pulling rods of soft metal, such as alloys of leadand tin, through a die of harder metal, such as iron. In modern times, until the middle of the 19th century, most wire was made from wrought
iron. By 1870 improvements in steelmaking made it possible to produce large amounts of steel wire for the first time.

Steel wire was first used for fencing during the settling of the American West in areas where wood was scarce. Early wire fences consisted of single strands which were easily broken in cold weather or by wandering cattle. In 1860, Frenchman Leonce Eugene Grassin-Baledans patented the use of twisted strands of sheet metal with projecting points as a “fence protector.” A similar method was patented in the United States in 1867 by Alphonso Dabb. That same year Lucien Smith and William Hunt received patents for single-stranded wire with barbs. In 1868 Michael Kelly invented the first double-stranded barbed wire, but the first commercially successful barbed wire was patented by Joseph Farwell Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, in 1874. Similar patents were filed that same year by Jacob Haish and Leonard Ellwood, both also of DeKalb. After twenty years of legal battles, the United States Supreme Court decided in Glidden’s favor, and he is often thought of as the “inventor” of barbed wire.

The use of barbed wire increased tremendously in the 1870s and 1880s, with some unfortunate side effects. In the severe winters of 1885-1886 and 1886-1887 thousands of cattle froze to death when they were unable to break through barbed wire “drift fences” intended to keep them from straying too far south. Conflicts between ranchers who wanted unfenced pastures and farmers who wanted fenced croplands escalated into fence-cutting, land-grabbing, and violent range wars. Eventually the conflict subsided when it became clear that barbed wire was becoming necessary as humans and cattle increased in number.

Barbed wire was adapted for military use during the Boer War and used in enormous quantities during World War I. Although barbed wire is often used for security, agriculture still accounts for 90% of its use. Many people collect antique barbed wire, with some rare specimens selling for hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of collectors attend the annual Barbed Wire Festival in La Crosse, Kansas, home of the Barbed Wire Museum.

Barbed wire is usually made of steel, which is an alloy of iron and a small amount of carbon. The raw materials required to manufacture steel are iron ore, coke (a carbon-rich substance produced by heating coal to a high temperature in the absence of air), and limestone. To prevent rusting, the steel wire is usually coated with zinc. Sometimes the steel is coated with aluminum, and occasionally the barbed wire itself is made of aluminum.


The Development of Barbed Wire

Prior to 1863, several individuals created forms of fencing that could be considered as barbed wire. None of these creations ever reached the mass market. In 1863 by Michael Kelly developed a type of fence with points affixed to twisted strands of wire. Had his invention been properly promoted, he could have gained distinction as the Father of Barbed Wire. It wasn’t until ten years later that another inventor filed a patent that would spark the development of the barbed wire industry.

At the county fair in DeKalb, Illinois in 1873, Henry M. Rose had on exhibit a new idea in fencing. It was a wooden rail with a series of sharp spikes protruding from the sides of the rail. The fence rail, patented earlier that year on May 13, was designed to be attached to an existing fence to “prick” an animal when it came into contact with the rail and keep livestock from breaking through.

This fence attracted the attention of each of the three men, Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, and Isaac Ellwood. Each man had the idea to improve upon Rose’s fence by attaching the spikes (barbs) directly to a piece of wire. Each went their separate ways to work on an invention that would soon bring them together.

Legend states that Glidden’s wife Lucinda encouraged him with his idea to enclose her garden. Glidden experimented by bending a short wire around a long strand of straight wire, by modifying a coffee mill. Two pins on one side of the mill, one centered and the other just enough off center to allow a wire to fit in between. When the crank was turned, the pins twisted the wire to form a loop. The wire was then clipped off approximately one inch on each end at an angle to form a sharp point. Barbs were placed on one of two parallel strands of wire. The two strands of wire were attached to a hook on the side of an old grinding wheel. As the barbs were positioned, the wheel was turned twisting the two strands of wire and locking the barbs in place.

During this time, Isaac Ellwood, a hardware merchant, had been unsuccessful in perfecting his own version of barbed wire. When Joseph Glidden was awarded a patent on November 24, 1874 for his creation known as “The Winner,” he and Ellwood formed a partnership to establish The Barb Fence Company.

Jacob Haish also had patented his own wire by this time but had not made a serious attempt to promote and sell it. Haish, wanting the credit for barbed wire himself, didn’t like the idea of Glidden and Ellwood forming a partnership and strived to bring them down. When Haish learned that Glidden had applied for a patent in late 1873, but was denied, Haish filed a patent for his creation, the “S-Barb” in July of 1874. A few days later he filed interference papers against Glidden and an intense legal dispute ensued. Even though Haish was awarded a patent first, Glidden won the dispute because he had filed his patent before Haish. Unwilling to admit defeat, Haish claimed the title of “the inventor of barbed wire.” Nevertheless, it was Joseph Glidden who became known as the “Father of Barbed Wire.”

Kansas Fence Laws

With miles of fences being constructed daily, there arose a need to define a lawful fence. In Kansas, lawmakers debated the issue and wrote legally binding definitions of proper fencing. When cropland adjoined land used for grazing, the statute of Kansas placed the burden on the landowner to fence out cattle lawfully at large. This determination was based on free range grazing laws which permitted cattle to graze unrestrained. Although the farmer was responsible for constructing the fence, he was afforded many advantages provided the fence met established criteria.

If an animal breached a fence, and trespassed upon cultivated or other fenced land, the animal’s owner was deemed responsible for the damage. The law further granted possession of the animal to the landowner until such time as he was properly compensated.

Railroads and Barbed Wire

Railroads were required to construct a legally defined fence along the right-of-way wherever tracks crossed lawfully fenced private land. Railroads did not receive the same benefits granted to landowners, however. They were exempted from rights of recourse (as given to landowners) when livestock trespassed upon their right-of-way.

Another problem was that neighboring farmers and ranchers started to “borrow” wire from railroad fences for their own use. With the enormous number of barbed wire fences being legitimately sold, it was almost impossible to find the thief and recover the stolen wire. To combat the problem, unique variations of “The Winner” were created exclusively for railroad use. The design consisted of one or more square strands of wire woven among one or more traditional round lines. For many years, railroad companies were principal customers of The Barb Fence Company. Once again barbed wire had struck a victory in the quest to settle the untamed West.

Different types of Barbed wire

Barbed wire has three common twist types:

single twist barbed wire,

double twist barbed wire and

traditional twist barbed wire.


The Manufacturing Process

The first step in manufacturing barbed wire is to make the steel ingots and billets, which are necessary pieces into holding your wire together. The ingots are heated and pushed through grooved rolls, which form the billets at the desired size. These billets are then heated and moved through rollers to create wire rods, which are then lubricated and pulled through dies to reduce the diameter. Since the wire initially comes out very stiff, it needs to go through a process called annealing. Annealing is performed by heating the wire in molten salt, lead, or a nitrogen furnace and this will make the wire more pliable.

The wire is then galvanized, which preps it to be threaded through a barbed wire machine to transform it into the desired security fencing material. Two wires are simultaneously fed into the machine, which twists them together into a cable. A separate wire is then inserted from the side and the machine twists it around the cable, cutting it at an angle to form the barbs.