Joseph Glidden (1813-1906) did not invent barbed wire, but the improvements to the product that he patented in 1874 resulted in the form of barbed wire still widely in use today. His refinements not only better secured the wire's barbs, but also kept it from snapping in extreme weather. Besides gaining him a personal fortune, Glidden's improvements led to the mass production and widespread use of barbed wire and had a major impact on the development of farming and ranching methods on the American Great Plains.
Joseph Farwell Glidden was born in Charleston, New Hampshire, on January 18, 1813, to David and Polly Hurd Glidden, natives of that state. When Glidden was a child, the family moved to Orleans County, New York, where he lived as a typical farmer's boy. Glidden attended school full time but after reaching adolescence appeared there only during the winter months, as he was needed at home to help with farming tasks.
During his late teens, Glidden decided he wanted to become a teacher. He received training at Vermont's Middlebury Academy, then attended a seminary at Lima, New York. He was employed as a teacher for only a few years until his interest in farming took him back to Orleans, where he stayed for eight years helping on the family farm. In 1837, Glidden married Clarissa Foster in Clarendon, New York; she and her three children died within several years of the marriage.
Wishing to buy his own farm but lacking the needed funds, Glidden began a journey westward in 1842. With two rather crude threshing machines in tow, he offered his services to farmers along a route from Michigan to Illinois. He also worked at other types of jobs out of farming season. By 1844 Glidden had accumulated enough money to purchase 600 acres of land near the Illinois town of DeKalb. Over time, he increased his land holdings there to 1500 acres, built a house, and began farming and raising cattle. In 1851 Glidden married Lucinda Warner, also of DeKalb.
In the fall of 1873, Glidden witnessed an event that was to dramatically change his life and lead to the transformation of farming and ranching practices throughout the western United States. In The Wire That Fenced the West, Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum described the events of that autumn day. "At the DeKalb County Fair of 1873, on the outskirts of DeKalb Township, there was shown a curious sample of fencing, hand made by one Henry M. Rose. The sample was wooden rail, as was most fencing of the day. But the rail in this case was equipped with short wire points extending out in sharp projections and the apparatus as a whole was designed to be fastened to existing fences of smooth wire, board, or ordinary rail."
The fence attachment on exhibit in their prairie farm belt town captured the attention of three local DeKalb men, among them Joseph Glidden. Most likely the men had come to the fair purely for recreational purposes. But, in the words of the McCallums, "when by chance they met and stood together examining the crudely spiked strips of wood, each considering how it might fit his personal needs, there was borne in upon the consciousness of each the realization that what he saw gave promise of things to come."
It is not known whether the three men, lumberman Jacob Haish and hardware merchant Isaac Leonard Ellwood, in addition to Glidden, actually discussed the prospects for adapting the improvement to fencing on a wider basis. However, within six months, all three had individually applied to the United States Patent Office for patents on various types of fencing with attached barbs.
Barbed wire fencing is made up of two pieces of wire twisted together to form a cable with thorn-like bobs at regular intervals. The fencing has been used to protect crops, water supplies, and livestock from being damaged or trampled by free-ranging cattle or other types of animals foraging for food. Barbed wire fencing provided a distinct improvement to the types of fencing materials that had been in use on the Great Plains prior to its development. Because trees were few and far between in some areas, wooden fencing was expensive. Rocks were not commonly found there, as they were in New England, so neither were rock fences feasible for common use. Slow-growing shrubs had been tried for use as fencing, but they often died during the region's occasional droughts or blew away in high winds. Stronger than plain wire fencing, which often snapped in the cold weather or was pushed over by animals, barbed wire emerged as the best choice for fencing material.
Attempts at producing barbed wire fencing had been made beginning in 1867, but none had produced a satisfactory material for restraining livestock. As a farmer, Glidden had been beset with worries about how to best protect his crops from damage. According to the McCallums, "The need for providing some sort of barricade to keep out stray animals was one of the gnawing problems of his everyday existence and he could see that an armoured fence attachment might help in remedying the situation."
After finishing his farm work, Glidden spent many evenings of the weeks following the DeKalb County Fair experimenting with ways to make spikes like those he had seen in Rose's exhibit. While Rose had envisioned putting the fencing on farm animals to protect them, Glidden decided that the barbs would be most effective if they were attached to the materials used to build the fences themselves. In a short time, he figured out how to make barbs and twist them directly onto the smooth wire used for fencing that most farmers were familiar with.
Most historians of the period agree that Glidden's wife, Lucinda, helped him in some way to develop his improvements to Rose's design, although the details of her involvement are not clear. The process was aided by the mechanism of a coffee grinder taken off the kitchen wall and through the use of equipment from the barnyard. In any event, Glidden figured out a way to twist a second wire around the first smooth wire to hold barbs in place and prevent them from slipping. This new design helped to keep wire from snapping during the frigid winters on the American Great Plains.
Once Glidden had perfected his design, the farmer had some neighbors come by to look at his invention. Soon, he was taking small orders from other farmers in the area. The demand for his barbed wire grew so strong that he was forced to hire additional help.
On October 27, 1873, Glidden applied to the U.S. Patent Office for a patent on his invention of a specific method for attaching barbs to wire. Within two months, Jacob Haish also submitted a patent application to the office. When Haish learned that Glidden had done so earlier, he made a legal challenge to Glidden's priority. For the next year, proceedings to decide the matter took place in the courts. Finally, on October 20, 1874, a decision was issued in favor of Glidden, who was granted U.S. Patent #157,124.
The following year Glidden developed a machine for producing barbed wire in large quantities. He asked his friend and fellow DeKalb citizen, Isaac Leonard Elwood, to invest $265 and go into partnership with him to manufacture barbed wire locally. Elwood agreed and together they formed the Barb Fence Company. The product immediately became successful and profits began to roll in. One year later Glidden sold his half-interest in the firm to the Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. He received more than $60,000 and royalties for the life of the patent. The company soon expanded and increased its mechanization. By 1880 the firm's annual production had reached 80 million pounds of barbed wire.
After Glidden sold his shares in the Barb Fence Company, he maintained no more involvement in the barbed wire industry except the collection of his royalties, which continued until 1901. Glidden amassed a large fortune, appearing occasionally in various courtrooms to testify as a witness in barbed wire litigation proceedings.
In 1881 Glidden and businessman H. B. Sanborn bought 125,000 acres of land in Texas, to which another 125,000 acres of Texas Public School land later were added. They fenced it with Glidden wire and stocked it with 1,500 head of cattle. Sanborn, who was convinced that the best way to sell barbed wire in the West was to provide Texas cattlemen with a large-scale demonstration of ranch fencing, headed the project. Glidden stayed in the background.
During the latter part of his life, Glidden's business interests included part ownership of DeKalb National Bank, where he served as vice president from its beginnings until 1883. He also owned the DeKalb Roller Grist Mill and served as builder and proprietor of the Glidden Hotel. In 1852 he served a one-year term as sheriff of DeKalb County.
In 1899 Glidden donated a 64-acre tract of land for the construction of a public school called the Normal School at DeKalb. He broke ground on the site of his former farmhouse where practical barbed-wire fencing had originated. Glidden died on October 9, 1906 in DeKalb, Illinois. He was survived by his wife, Lucinda, and his daughter, Mrs. W. H. Bush of Chicago.
Glidden is remembered for his role in encouraging the widespread use of barbed wire, which has been called "the force that tamed the West." The National Archives and Records Administration's Teaching with Documents series developed a lesson plan on Glidden's Patent Application for Barbed Wire. According to the series' text, "Barbed wire not only simplified the work of the rancher and farmer, but it significantly affected political, social, and economic practices throughout the region. Vast and undefined prairies and plains yielded to range management, farming, and ultimately, widespread settlement. As the use of barbed wire increased, wide-open spaces became less wide, less open, and less spacious, and the days of the free roaming cowboy were numbered."
When barbed wire first came into use, cattlemen strongly opposed the development. They sometimes engaged in fence cutting to allow their herds to roam free and graze at no expense. But over time most cattlemen saw the advantage of barbed wire fencing. The fencing led to the raising of livestock in more controlled conditions, which in turn led to the development of breeds larger and stronger than the lanky free-range-fed variety that were once so common. As a result, by 1890, nearly the entire western United States range was fenced.
Glidden's design for barbed wire, known as "the winner," is still the most familiar style of barbed wire and remains in wide use to protect construction sites and storage yards. The U.S. government used it to protect buildings and equipment during the Spanish-American War and the two world wars. Barbed wire continues to divide property all over the western United States.
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Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957.
Johnson, Thomas H., Oxford Companion to American History, Oxford University Press, 1966.
McCallum, Henry D. and Frances T., The Wire That Fenced the West, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
Webster's American Biographies, edited by Charles Van Doren, Merriam-Webster Inc., 1984.
World of Invention, Gale Research, 1994.
"Wire," Compton's Encyclopedia Online v.3.0, http://www.comptons.com/encyclopedia (December 17, 2000).
"Glidden, Joseph Farwell," Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com (December 17, 2000).
"Glidden's Patent for Barbed Wire," National Archives and Records Administration, Teaching With Documents, Vol. 2., http:nara.gov/education/teaching/glidden/wire.html (December 17, 2000).