100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Barbed Wire
Year of Invention: 1873

What Is It? Long, double strands of wire with periodic sharp metal barbs.

Who Invented It? Joseph Glidden (in DeKalb, Illinois)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Simple strands of barbed wire strung across the endless miles of open prairie did far more to tame the Wild West than did the famed Western Winchester rifles or Colt six shooters. Barbed wire redefined the landscape of the American West. It opened the West to farmers and settlers, giving them security and ensuring that cattle barons couldn’t trample their fields and gardens with massive herds. Barbed wire, far more than guns or lawmen, closed the Western open ranges and ended the great cattle drives.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

From earliest times, humans have been building barriers to keep some things out and others in. Usually they made those walls and fences out of locally available materials—stone, mud, brick, wood, thorn bushes, etc.

When settlers reached the rolling prairie of the American Midwest, they faced a new problem: how do you fence vast, open stretches of land with no trees and few surface rocks to use? Wire seemed to be the only available answer. But cattle could push over wire fences. Wire marked boundaries well but did little to discourage determined animals.


How Was Barbed Wire Invented?

In 1853, W. H. Meriwether in Minnesota invented “snake wire,” a stretched wire with a second looping strand running parallel to it. It didn’t work. In 1867, Lucien Smith in Kansas invented the first barbed wire. He hand-wove short metal spikes into wire at regular intervals and named it “artificial thorn hedge.” Smith’s thorn hedge was hugely popular. But it was handmade, and Smith couldn’t produce enough to meet local demand, much less export it across the prairies.

Joseph Glidden was a New Hampshire rancher who moved to DeKalb, Illinois, in 1843 and bought a farm. In the summer of 1872, Glidden, then 60, spent a day at the DeKalb county fair. There he paused at a booth set up by farmer Henry Rose. Rose had hand-twisted

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