Glidden Patents Barbed Wire

Joseph Glidden’s invention of a new type of barbed wire for fencing had an immediate impact on the American West. The wire’s production and proliferation forever transformed the grazing era, revolutionized the physical demarcation of borders, and developed a new symbolism of containment and even oppression.

Summary of Event

Upon arriving in the Americas, colonists defined boundaries by heaping stones, brushes, and trees excavated from their fields on an agreed border. Settlers who moved into eastern prairies and the Great Plains found few familiar resources and resorted to earthen barriers, imported Osage orange brush, and other poor substitutes. With the advent of barbed wire, and its subsequent mass production, fencing quickly littered the West, acting still as a critical physical barrier in domestic, industrial, correctional, and military facilities. Glidden, Joseph
Barbed wire
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[kw]Glidden Patents Barbed Wire (Nov. 24, 1874)
[kw]Patents Barbed Wire, Glidden (Nov. 24, 1874)
[kw]Barbed Wire, Glidden Patents (Nov. 24, 1874)
[kw]Wire, Glidden Patents Barbed (Nov. 24, 1874)
Glidden, Joseph
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[g]United States;Nov. 24, 1874: Glidden Patents Barbed Wire[4750]
[c]Inventions;Nov. 24, 1874: Glidden Patents Barbed Wire[4750]
[c]Science and technology;Nov. 24, 1874: Glidden Patents Barbed Wire[4750]
[c]Agriculture;Nov. 24, 1874: Glidden Patents Barbed Wire[4750]
Washburn, Charles F.
Ellwood, Isaac L.
Gates, John W.
Haish, Jacob

Late nineteenth century industrialization and the mass production of steel provided the potential for a new durable divider. Between 1860 and 1873 at least nine fence patents were recorded. By 1881 some 1,229 fence designs received recognition from the U.S. Patent Office. The first in the barbed-wire family was actually a picket fence with sharp tacks embedded to block livestock. Later, the Hunt Patent (1867) employed two smooth steel wires with rotating spurs of sheet metal affixed throughout. The Kelly Patent (1868) included the first twisting wires complemented by small spikes and was perhaps the true first modern barbed wire.

Joseph Glidden was born in 1813 in New Hampshire. A year after birth his family relocated to New York State, where he was raised and received an education. Glidden went on to teach school before moving to Illinois in 1842, claiming six hundred acres of land in De Kalb County. After thirty years of farming and community involvement, Glidden stumbled upon his famous invention—barbed wire. Three varying stories recount the origin of his idea. In one narrative the invention was more an accidental discovery as he worked to untangle two crossed smooth wires; in a second story, Glidden invented barbed wire as a practical means to protect his wife’s garden; in yet a third explanation the invention came as inspiration after visiting a county fair in which inventor Henry M. Rose demonstrated a smooth wire fence on which hung thin sixteen-foot wooden panels embedded with sharp brands. Other soon-to-be rivals likewise attended the same fair and envisioned products similar to Glidden’s barbed wire.

Glidden’s barbed wire was functional, durable, and eventually became quite cheap to produce. The patent describes the invention as “a twisted fence-wire having the transverse spur wire D bent at its middle portion about one of the wire strands of a of said fence-wire, and clamped in position and place by the other wire strand z, twisted upon its fellow, substantially as specified.” More simply put, the invention consisted of barbs evenly placed upon a single smooth steel wire with a second wire wrapped around the first to hold the barbs in place, the wires then attached to posts every fifteen to fifty feet (depending on the topography). Intertwining two wires allowed the fence to expand and contract with the fluctuation of temperature while remaining durable and successfully deterring livestock. Furthermore, Glidden’s wire did not aid in the making of snow drifts, nor did it block vision or oppose otherwise damaging winds—a perfect fit for the plains.

The Glidden patent was challenged several times, most critically by fellow De Kalb resident Jacob Haish Haish, Jacob . Glidden’s first application to the Patent Office dates to October, 1873. On technical grounds of organization, however, the application was rejected, corrected, and resubmitted twice before being granted approval on November 24, 1874 (Patent No. 157, 124). Haish, on the other hand, submitted his application of a similar design after Glidden’s original but immediately received the patent in June, 1874, as no other conflicting claim had yet been completed. A legal battle ensued between the two rivals. As late as 1880, Glidden testified against Haish, claiming Haish sent a mechanic to copy his specifications in May of 1874. The legal suit was eventually resolved by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court in an 1892 decision upholding Glidden’s patent.

The barbed-wire industry pushed forward, even with the litigation. In 1874, Glidden partnered with inventor and businessman Isaac Ellwood, Ellwood, Isaac L. who purchased half the rights to the patent. The two then founded the Barbed Fence Company. They quickly acquired previous necessary patents and, in December, 1874, bought the rights to P. W. Vaughan’s barbed-wire machine (a step up from Glidden’s original converted coffee grindstone). Employing seventy workers in a small two-story building, the company’s increasing demand for processed smooth steel wire caught the notice of their supplier, Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company of Worchester, Massachusetts. After several visits, Washburn & Moen’s vice president, Charles F. Washburn, Washburn, Charles F. was sufficiently impressed by the design. Finding it easy to mass-produce with advanced machinery, Washburn & Moen partnered with Ellwood Ellwood, Isaac L. in 1872 and bought out Glidden’s interests.

Public acceptance of barbed wire was slow initially, but eventually the fence was everywhere in the prairies and plains. Many opposed “the devil’s rope” for fear that it would harm the cattle and horses that wandered into the barbs. On the eve of the Texas legislature’s motion to outlaw the product, Ellwood dispatched salesmen Henry B. Sanborn and John “Bet-a-Million” Gates Gates, John W. to persuade ranchers of its value. In 1875, Gates organized a demonstration of barbed wire in San Antonio’s main plaza, wherein he corralled several Longhorns. Impressed by the product’s durability and the evident safety of the cattle, as well as the temporary offer to sell the wire at wholesale, Texans quickly converted to the wire. To persuade southern ranchers to adopt it, Glidden and Sanborn organized a ranch fenced with barbed wire in Texas; the ranch led to the development of Amarillo. Soon the product was in widespread use across the plains, by ranchers and farmers seeking to protect their lands.

After Glidden’s work ended, Washburn & Moen continued to play a primary role in barbed-wire production, buying out and intimidating its competitors. Haish Haish, Jacob , who lacked comparable production and financial backing, faded into obscurity. In December of 1880, Washburn Washburn, Charles F. won a test case before a federal district court that recognized the primacy of its patent and required all competitors to lease rights and recompense back-payment penalties.

In 1887, recently successful competitor (and former employee) Gates Gates, John W. pressed Washburn & Moen for a corporate merger. After being rejected, Gates went on to incorporate steel producers, refiners, and barbed-wire companies in an enormous monopoly-holding firm named the American Steel and Wire Company of New Jersey. In April of 1899, Washburn & Moen reconsidered and, with the support of other companies, it joined American Steel and Wire. The merger led the newly organized company to control 96 percent of barbed-wire production in the United States.


The effects of barbed wire have been expansive and far-reaching. Barbed-wire fencing rapidly covered the prairie and plains states. In Texas, immense cattle Cattle;and barbed wire[Barbed wire] ranches formed to dominate the cattle industry and state politics, in large part facilitated by the new wire. On the northern plains, barbed fences posted by ranchers and farmers created a patchwork that increasingly denied cattle access to grazing fields, water holes, and general passage to railheads, eventually transforming the plains into the agricultural entity of the twentieth century. Quite literally, barbed wire closed the open range, and though barbed wire did not see widespread use outside the United States, ranchers in Argentina Argentina;cattle and Australia Australia;cattle often employed the fence as well.

Military uses for the wire may have begun after its mention in an 1888 British war manual. Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Spanish-American War[Spanish American War] Roosevelt’s Rough Riders also used the fencing to protect their camps during the Spanish-American War Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];Rough Riders (1898).

Because barbed wire is a common tool for enclosure, it has come to symbolize containment and oppression, evoking uneasy emotions. Perhaps most apparent, barbed wire remains a standard deployment for high-wire entanglements on the battlefield, and it frequently serves to protect and partition military, industrial, correctional, and domestic boundaries. Whether surrounding pastures, prisons, or factories, barbed wire is a surrounding feature of life, even into the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

  • Clifton, Robert T. Barbs, Prongs, Points, Prickers, and Stickers: A Complete and Illustrated Catalog of Antique Barbed Wire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. Almost one thousand classified drawings, complete with indexes to patents, inventors, and manufacturers.
  • Dreicer, Gregory K., ed. Between Fences. Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum and Princeton Architectural Press, 1996. An exhibition catalog with essays that include “Barbed Wire Fences and the American West” by historian J. B. Jackson, a pioneer in the field of cultural landscape studies.
  • Krell, Alan. The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire. London: Reaktion Books, 2002. A history of barbed wire that emphasizes modern applications, collectors, symbolism, and the wire’s social and cultural impact.
  • McCallum, Henry D., and Frances T. McCallum. The Wire That Fenced the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. Discusses the development, legal issues, and early production of barbed wire.
  • McFadden, Joseph M. “Monopoly in Barbed Wire: The Formation of the American Steel and Wire Company.” Business Historical Review 52, no. 4 (Winter, 1978): 465-489. Traces the rise of the American Steel and Wire Company as it incorporated smaller businesses and grew to dominate wire manufacturing in the United States.
  • Mather, Eugene, et al. “Fences and Farms.” Geographical Review 44, no. 2 (April, 1954): 201-223. A brief history that also discusses the various types of fences prevalent in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.
  • Netz, Reviel. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. Examines the functional and symbolic use of barbed wire, with sections on “expansion,” “confrontation,” and “containment.”
  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “Joseph F. Glidden’s Barbed Wire Patent.” Patent Description, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241. A facsimile of Glidden’s first patent application, dated October, 1873.

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