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Fascinating facts about the invention of
barbed wire
by Joseph Glidden in 1873

BARBED WIRE
AT A GLANCE:
The need for barbed wire arose in the 19th century as the American frontier moved westward into the Great Plains and traditional fence materials—wooden rails and stone—became scarce and expensive. Of the many early types of barbed wire, the type invented in Illinois in 1873 by Joseph F. Glidden proved most popular.
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Invention: barbed wire in 1873
Book Cover from Barbed Wire: A Political History (see below)
Function: noun / wire with clusters of sharp spikes at intervals along it.
Definition: Wire fencing constructed with sharp edges or points arranged at intervals along the strand(s). Barbed wire was the first wire technology capable of restraining cattle.
Patent: 157,124 (US) issued November 24, 1874
Inventor: Joseph Farwell Glidden
Joseph Glidden image courtesy The Antique Barbed Wire Society
Criteria: First practical. Modern prototype. Entrepreneur.
Birth: January 18, 1813 in Clarendon, New York.
Death: October 9, 1906 in Dekalb, Illinois
Nationality: American
Milestones:
1865 Louis Jannin of France.patents an unsuccessful pointed wire product.
1867 two inventors tried adding points to smooth wire but failed.
1868 Michael Kelly invented a practical wire with points which was used in quantity until 1874.
1872 Joseph Farwell Glidden files patent application for an improved wire fence
1873 Henry M. Rose exhibited a wooden rail with a series of sharp spikes protruding
1873 Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, and Isaac Ellwood have idea to improve upon Rose's fence
1874 Glidden sells Isaac Ellwood half interest in his barbed wire patent for $265.00.
1874 Glidden awarded a patent for his barbed wire fence invention.
1874 Glidden and Ellwood formed a partnership called the Barb Fence Company
1875 Glidden's invention set off a creative frenzy that produced over 570 barbed wire patents.
1876 Glidden sells the other half interest in his patent to Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Co. .
1877 Courts declare Glidden the "Father of Barbed Wire"
CAPs: Glidden, Joseph Farwell Glidden, Jacob Haish, Isaac Ellwood, Michael Kelly, Henry M. Rose, Barb Fence Company, John "Bet a Million" Gates, Louis Jannin, American Steel & Wire Company, SIPs: fence, barb wire, barbed wire, invention, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
Barbed wire is composed of two zinc-coated steel strands twisted together and having barbs spaced regularly along them. The need for barbed wire arose in the 19th century as the American frontier moved westward into the Great Plains and traditional fence materials—wooden rails and stone—became scarce and expensive. Of the many early types of barbed wire, the type invented in Illinois in 1873 by Joseph F. Glidden proved most popular.

Joesph Glidden was born January 18, 1813 in Clarendon, New York. In 1843, he moved to Illinois with his wife Clarissa Foster and set about farming the land..His wife and their two sons died shortly after the move. In 1851, Glidden married Lucinda Warne and acquired additional farming land. During the years 1852 to 1872 Glidden held various city and county government positions in addtion to his farming duties.

Joseph Glidden attended a Dekalb, Illinois county fair where he observed a demonstration of a wooden rail with sharp nails protruding along its sides, hanging inside a smooth wire fence. The fence rail, patented earlier that year on May 13, by Henry M. Rose 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 inspired him to invent and patent, in 1874, a successful barbed wire in the form we recognize today. Glidden fashioned barbs on an improvised coffee bean grinder, placed them at intervals along a smooth wire, and twisted another wire around the first to hold the barbs in a fixed position.

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. Glidden sells Isaac Ellwood half interest in his barbed wire patent for $265.00. 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. In 1874 its first year in business the Barb Fence Company produed 10,000 lbs of barbed wire by 1875 they produced more than 600,000 lbs. of barbed wire. In 1876, Glidden sells the other half interest in his patent to Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company of Worcester, Massachusetts.  He receives $60,000.00 plus royalties.

The advent of Glidden's successful invention set off a creative frenzy that eventually produced over 570 barbed wire patents. It also set the stage for a three-year legal battle over the rights to these patents.
When the legal battles were over, Joseph Glidden was declared the winner and the Father of Barbed Wire.

His invention made him extremely rich. By the time of his death in 1906, he was one of the richest men in America. The Dun and Bradstreet recorded his assets at one million dollars. This included the Glidden House Hotel, the DeKalb Chronicle, 3,000 acres of farm land in Illinois, 335,000 acres in Texas, and the Glidden Felt Pad Industry. He was also Vice-President of the DeKalb National Bank, Director of the North Western Railroad, and owner of the DeKalb Rolling Mill. .

Glidden, a former teacher, gave 63 acres of his homestead as a site for the Northern Illinois Normal School. The school opened on September 12, 1898, with 139 students and 16 members of the faculty. The school's name was changed to Northern Illinois University in 1957.

Glidden was neither the first or the last to invent barbed wire. But, it was the  most successful barbed wire. It was an improvement on earlier less successful pointed wire products such as those invented in 1865 by Louis Jannin of France, 1868 by Michael Kelly of America and in 1873 by Henry Rose of America.

Joseph Glidden's wire fences were cheaper to erect than their alternatives and when they became widely available in the late 19th century in the United States they made it affordable to fence much bigger areas than before. Joseph Farwell Glidden's simple invention, barbed wire, changed forever the development of the American West.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Joseph Glidden Inventor Biography   from The Great Idea Finder
Agricultural History   from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:

The History of Science and Technology
by Bryan Bunch, Alexander Hellemans / Hardcover: 768 pages / Houghton Mifflin Company; (2004)
Highly browsable yet richly detailed, expertly researched and indexed, The History of Science and Technology is the perfect desktop reference for both the science novice and the technologically advanced reader alike.
Barbs, Prongs, Points, Prickers, and Stickers; A Complete and Illustrated Catalogue of Antique Barbed Wire
by Robert T. Clifton / Paperback: 418 pages / University of Oklahoma Press; [1979)
This is the best book on barbed wire identification that I have found. It is actually a catalog of line drawings of barbed wire patents. Because of this, there may be drawings of wire that may have never actually been produced. The drawings are very clear and are identified by name, patent number and patent date.

Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity
by Reviel Netz / Library Binding: 267 pages / Wesleyan University Press (2004)
The history of animals and humans as seen through barbed wire.

Barbed Wire: A Political History
by Olivier Razac, Jonathan Kneight / Paperback: 144 pages / W. W. Norton & Company (2003)
No less than the internal combustion engine, the transistor, or the silicon chip, barbed wire is a quintessentially modern invention, a product that has influenced the lives of millions of people across the globe since its invention in the late nineteenth century.

Patents : Bubblewrap, Bottlecaps, Barbed Wire, and Other Ingenious Inventions
by Ben Ikenson / Hardcover: 288 pages / Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (May 1, 2004)
The book is covered in bubble wrap, one of man's more ingenious creations. It includes dozens of notable patents, from the airplane, brassiere, chain saw, and fire hydrant to the Internet, parachute, plunger, and zipper. The purpose of each device is explained in accessible language, along with background about the inventor, interesting sidebars and history, and an excerpt from the original patent application.

The Wire That Fenced the West (Limited availability)
by Henry D. McCallum / Paperback / University of Oklahoma Press (July 1, 1979)
The invention of barbed wire in the 1870's had a tremendous impact on all western landowners.


ON THE WEB:
Barbed Wire Mesuum
There are over 530 patented barbed wires, approximately 2,000 variations and over 2,000 patented barbed wire tools to collect as well as advertising, salesmen samples, wire cut medicine bottles, and other wire related items.
(URL: www.barbwiremuseum.com/barbedwirehistory.htm)
Devil's Rope
When Joseph Glidden's barbed wire was patented, in 1874, a seemingly insignificant event that dramatically changed the frontier.
(URL: americanart.si.edu/1001/2002/11/112402.html)
Barbed Wire Inventors
The Antique Barbed Wire Society is committed to collecting, preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting the historical heritage of barb wire and barbed wire related items, and enlisting interest and support for an on-going organization.
(URL: www.antiquebarbedwiresociety.com/)

Barb Fence Company
Glidden applied for a patent in October 1873; however, it was not granted until November 24, 1874. Ellwood quickly recognized the superiority of Glidden's concept, and in July 1874 he purchased a one-half interest in Glidden’s yet-to-be issued patent for $265. They formed the Barb Fence Company.
(URL: www.ellwoodhouse.org/barb_wire/)
History of Barbed Wire
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.
(URL: www.rushcounty.org/BarbedWireMuseum/BWhistory.htm)
Barbed Wire, The Thorny Fence that Transformed the West
Barbed wire, this popular fencing tool hurried westward expansion and influenced life in the region as dramatically as the rifle, telegraph, windmill, and locomotive. From the Invention at Play Series.
(URL: www.inventionatplay.org/inventors_bar.html)
The Rise of Barbed Wire and Its Transformation of the American Frontier
Barbed wire fencing was a technology, and its invention and rise played a major role in the transformation of the frontier and West. Its effects were momentous, and are stiill being felt today.
(URL: xroads.virginia.edu/~CLASS/am485_98/cook/wire.htm)

WORDS OF WISDOM:
"A woman’s dress should be like a barbed wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view."  - Sophia Loren, 1979

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Joseph Glidden's invention made him extremely rich. By the time of his death in 1906, he was one of the richest men in America
  • In 1874 its first year in business the Barb Fence Company produed 10,000 lbs of barbed wire by 1875 they produced more than 600,000 lbs. of barbed wire.
  • There are over 530 patented barbed wires, approximately 2,000 variations and over 2,000 patented barbed wire tools
  • Prisoner of War Medal is a congressional decoration featuring a bald eagle surrounded by barbed wire and bayonet points, that is awarded to any American prisoner of war held captive by enemy.
  • The town of Glidden, Iowa is named in Joseph Glidden's honor.
Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised January 4, 2006.
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