the barbed wire story
In the 1870s, three men from DeKalb, Illinois began tinkering with an idea for cheap, durable fencing. They were: Joseph F. Glidden, a farmer; Jacob Haish, a lumber dealer; and Isaac L. Ellwood, a hardware merchant. With a simple twist of metal, the lives of these three men and the future of the American West were changed forever.
Joseph Glidden made his first barbed wire in the kitchen of his farmhouse, using a coffee mill to twist the barbs into shape. Working in his barn he then utilized a grindstone to twist two strands of wire together after placing the handmade barbs on one strand of the wire. After making several hundred feet of wire in this manner, he fenced his wife's vegetable garden to keep stray animals out.
Glidden applied for a patent in October 1873; however, it was not granted until November 24, 1874. Meanwhile, Ellwood quickly recognized the superiority of Glidden's concept over his own, and in July 1874 he purchased a one-half interest in Glidden’s yet-to-be issued patent for $265. DeKalb folklore relates that it was Mrs. Ellwood who saw the promise of Glidden’s wire.
Glidden and Ellwood soon formed a partnership called the Barb Fence Company and began the manufacture of barbed wire in DeKalb. In the first year of 1874 only 10,000 lbs. of barbed wire were produced, largely by hand. The following year the company built its first factory with a steam engine and machines to mechanize the barbing of the wire. Output rose dramatically and in 1875 more than 600,000 lbs. were manufactured.
In 1876 Glidden sold the remaining interest in his patent to Washburn & Moen Co., the largest U.S. wire manufacturer, for $60,000 plus royalty rights. Backed by ample capital, the barbed wire business soon began to assume gigantic proportions. According to The DeKalb County Manufacturer, 2,840,000 lbs. of barbed wire were produced in 1876, 12,863,000 lbs. in 1877, 26,655,000 lbs. in 1878, and 50,337,000 lbs. in 1879.
To preserve their monopoly, Washburn & Moen and Isaac Ellwood & Company purchased the rights to many prior and subsequent patents related to barbed wire. Years of litigation followed between the holders of the Glidden patent and other patentholders, including Jacob Haish, over priority in the invention of the first practical barbed wire. In 1892, the United States Supreme Court awarded precedence to Joseph Glidden because of his original claim that the twisting of the two strands of wire holds the barbs in place. The Court declared: "In the law of patents, it is the last step that wins."
Before barbed wire could achieve widespread use throughout the West, it had to be accepted by ranchers and farmers. Sensing that Texas would be the largest single market for the new invention, Ellwood sent the team of Henry Sanborn and J.P. Warner to Houston in 1875 to promote and sell barbed wire. They found Texas seething with controversy between the free grassers, who wanted to maintain the open range, and the nesters, who advocated fields protected by fences. Even those who were in favor of fencing scoffed at the idea that a light-weight barbed wire fence could restrain the wild Texas Longhorn cattle. There was also concern that the sharp barbs would inflict wounds on cattle. If the cuts became infected, the cattle could become diseased and die.
Because of these controversies, Sanborn and Warner failed to sell much barbed wire. This situation changed when a 21-year-old sales-man named John W. Gates was hired by Ellwood. Arriving in Texas, Gates obtained permission to build a barbed wire corral in San Antonio's Military Plaza. He announced that he intended to demonstrate that this fence could contain even the most wild Texas longhorns and offered to take all bets on the outcome. Gates' bravado soon aroused the interest of many cattlemen. When the fenced enclosure was complete, he had wild Longhorn bulls driven into the corral. The animals, aroused by the taunts of the onlookers, were provoked repeatedly to charge the barbed wire. The fences held and Gates soon began to sell barbed wire to the cattlemen by the railcar load.