On this day in 1867, American Lucien B Smith from Kent, Ohio, filed a patent that fundamentally impacted on cattle farming in the US and internationally.
Before barbed wire, cattle fencing was made of single wire strands which didn’t deter livestock and was easily broken. Other alternatives were wooden fencing which was costly, or rock/stone walls that were very labour intensive for large areas.
Smith’s patent for barbed wire, or what he referred to as an artificial thorn hedge, simply consisted of wire with short metal spikes (barbs) twisted onto the wire by hand at regular intervals. This resulted in four projecting nail-like points radiating from the wire at each point, 2-3 feet apart.
While Smith’s patent showed great potential for restraining cattle, it did not solve the breakage problems – this was cleverly addressed through subsequent improvements, first by Michael Kelly and later Joseph Glidden, who twisted two wires together to form a barbed cable, resulting in a stronger wire which still had the deterring quality of Smith’s original concept.
Glidden’s 1874 patent turned out to be the most effective, most commercially viable design, consisting of a method for locking the barbs in place and a design for the machinery to mass produce barbed wire.
Beyond its obvious agricultural application, barbed wire became widely used during wars, for security purposes, and for prisoner confinement. As such, barbed wire has become a symbol for confinement and restriction, rather than being the empowering tool it was initially meant to be in its agricultural context.