Barbed Wire, twisted steel wire with short barbs or sharp points of wire twisted around it at regular intervals. Because it provided cheap, effective fencing, it revolutionized the cattle industry in the American West. In warfare, barbed wire entanglements are used to defend lines of battle.

Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, patented barbed wire in 1874. He got the idea from Henry N. Rose, also of DeKalb, who developed a fence made of strips of wood studded with barbs. Others had similar ideas, but Glidden's patents were upheld by the courts.

Barbed Wire and Cattle

Cattlemen doubted that wire fencing would hold wild Texas longhorns, and also feared the barbs would injure cattle. In 1877 John W. Gates, later known as "Bet-You-a-Million" Gates, built a barbed wire corral in San Antonio, into which 25 longhorns were stampeded. The fence held and the cattle were not injured. Gates eventually controlled several wire companies and in 1898 formed the American Steel and Wire Company, with a capital of $90,000,000.

The invention of barbed wire came at a time when open-range cattle raising was ending. Government land was being occupied by farmers, and ranchers were forced to buy land and fence it. On the western plains wood was scarce and barbed wire was the cheapest fencing.

Cattle fleeing from blizzards piled up on these fences and were frozen to death. For this reason, and because some cattlemen tried to cling to the open-range idea, there were fence-cutting raids and fence wars, but soon the barbed-wire fence was seen to be a necessity. One of its great values was in allowing ranchers to improve their herds by selective breeding. Herefords and other fine stock were brought in when there were fences to keep them from mixing with the gaunt and tough longhorns.

Barbed Wire and Warfare

In the Spanish-American War (1898) the Spanish used barbed wire in defending Santiago, Cuba. Barbed wire in huge quantities was used in the prolonged trench warfare of World War I. Only artillery fire could break through some of the tangles that resulted. The use of barbed wire continued in World War II and in later wars whenever troops held defensive positions for any length of time.