I’m on a ski trip, and one of my ski buddies claims that barbed wire is the most important invention of all time. While I’d put indoor plumbing, glass, and the clapper above barbed wire, he’s not crazy to think that barbed wire ranks as a hugely important invention. Case-in-point is that an early advertisement for barbed wire in 1875 called it “The Greatest Discovery of the Age.” Source.
What it was Like Prior to Barbed Wire?
Prior to barbed wire, the American West was largely unsettled prairie. According to Tim Harford in his book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, “the prairie was a vast and uncharted expanse of tall, tough grasses, a land suitable for nomads, not settlers. [It was often called the “Great American Dessert.] It had long been the territory of Native Americans. After Europeans arrived and pushed west, the cowboys roamed free, herding cattle over the boundless plains. But settlers needed fences, not least to keep those free-roaming cattle from trampling their crops.”
It wasn’t cost-effective (or sometimes even possible) to fence off miles of land using wood fencing. Some settlers tried growing hedges but they were slow-growing and problematic. Without a means of fencing, settling of the American West was impractical.
Barbed Wire to the Rescue
DeKalb, Illinois, a small city 65 miles west of Chicago, is known for a few things:
- Home to Northern Illinois University
- The annual “Corn Fest” festival
- Childhood home to both supermodel Cindy Crawford and my colleague Greg Stokke.
But maybe most importantly (sorry, Greg) DeKalb was a major player in the development and manufacture of barbed wire and was the home of Joseph Glidden, who patented the modern version of barbed wire in 1874.
Barbed wire was essential to the implementation of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed any “honest citizen” to claim 160 acres of land so long as they built a house and worked the land for at least five years. Barbed wire allowed those settlers to stake out their land. Tim Harford notes, “Until barbed wire was developed, the prairie was an unbounded space, more like an ocean than a stretch of arable land. Private ownership of land wasn’t common because it wasn’t feasible.”
Within a few decades of the invention of barbed wire, it was used widely in the American West. “The year that Glidden secured his barbed-wire patent, thirty-two miles of wire were produced. Six years later, in 1880, the factory in DeKalb turned out 263,000 miles of wire, enough to circle the world ten times over.” Source.
The spread of barbed wire wasn’t without its issues, however, as it generated disagreements over land ownership and usage. Most notably, much of the property claimed by settlers had been the territory of Native Americans. Erecting fencing across land they considered to be theirs was a source of conflict (to say the least). Native Americans referred to barbed wire as “the devil’s rope.”
Cowboys didn’t like barbed wire either as it cut across where they’d drive their cattle. Prior to barbed wire, cowboys followed the law of “open range” — that cattle were free to wander and graze across the plains.
Regardless of its negatives, there is no doubt that barbed wire had a major impact on the development of the American West (and a similar impact elsewhere on the globe).