The invention of the hedgerow
had a transformative effect on the English countryside that is well documented. Barbed wire had the same effect on the American west, reducing the infinite landscape into human-sized portions. It was crude, brutal and cheap, attributes which symbolised for Europeans all that was wrong with the New World
; but within half a century the poison had spread, thousands of Europe's sons dying tangled in barbed wire in a metal war, a storm of steel.
Barbed wire grew from the problem of fencing gigantic cattle ranges on the Midwestern plains - none of the traditional alternatives were practical in an area devoid of trees and rock. Hedgerows, the solution employed in England, were too static to cope with expanding farms. Furthermore, they took a long time to grow, and whilst doing so they were fragile. Plain wire was available in large quantities but suffered from a serious drawback, in that cattle could easily push through it. As Charles Fort would no doubt have argued, it was time for barbed wire to be invented; the mind of the universe was ready to be channelled.
Inevitably for such an elementary invention the original authorship of barbed wire remains murky; the first patent was filed in 1865 by Frenchman Louis Jannin, with patents arriving in 1867 from William Hunt and Lucien Smith. New Yorker Michael Kelly filed another patent in 1868; as with the previous designs, the wire consisted of two intertwined strands of wire, with lozenge-shaped blades attached at intervals along its length. Kelly's patented wire was tricky to make in bulk and, although it was a short-term commercial success, a better design was waiting in the wings. Over four hundred competing patents ensued.
As with John Logie Baird's television a few years later, the original barbed wire was soon replaced by an improved model, designed by Joseph F. Glidden in 1874. His version was cheaper and simpler - the barbed wire we know and love today, consisting of a single strand of wire modulated with twisted barbs. Furthermore, Glidden successfully developed machinery that could mass-produce his wire. Two decades of competing designs and legal challenges ensued (not just from other inventors, but also some states which banned the wire on the grounds that it was cruel to animals), although Glidden's design won out commercially and, in a Supreme Court decision in 1892, legally as well.
Barbed wire helped to tame the west; with the cattle safely enclosed the opportunities for cattle rustlers were greatly reduced, and cowboys found their services less in demand than before. Farms and farmers consolidated to form giant agricultural concerns, requiring increased mechanisation and industrialisation to compete; whilst other industries found that security was greatly facilitated by the new wire.
Barbed wire also had obvious military applications; the French and British were the first to use wire, in the 1880s, and the great plains of Africa were very similar to those of North America. It could keep enemy troops out, whilst allowing defending troops to direct rifle fire at them; and it was light and cheap. It did for mounted cavalry, just as surely as the machine-gun.
One of the indelible images of the Great War is that of a cratered landscape covered in acres of barbed wire; Germany in particular used it as a quick and cheap means of slowing down attacking troops, who were required to clip away at the wire with ineffectial wire cutters, or bayonets modified to perform the same task. (Even today, bayonets are often designed so that the scabbard can be attached to the blade to form a rudimentary cutter). By the end of the war both sides had developed more advanced, more lethal forms of cutting wire, the results eventually resembling a jagged, glistening scrapyard of sharpened metal forms, of which Picasso was undoubtedly proud.
Apart from wire cutters, the alternative and preferred method for removing barbed wire was high-explosive shellfire, but this was notoriously erratic; more often than not the barbed wire was simply blown into the air, to land again in a more complex heap than before. Nonetheless, shellfire made it hard for the opposing side to repair the wire, a task which was no less dangerous than attacking it.
"If you want the old battalion,
we know where they are,
we know where they are,
we know where they are.
If you want the old battalion,
we know where they are;
they're hangin' on the old barbed wire.
We've seen them,
we've seen them;
hangin' on the old barbed wire.
We've seen them,
we've seen them;
hangin' on the old barbed wire."
After advancing through machine-gun and shell-fire, attacking troops would find themselves bunched up against the wire; after cutting a channel the soldiers were required to funnel themselves towards the enemy trenches, making them ideal targets for a well-sited machine-gun - indeed, the wire was often placed in such a way that supposed weak spots were directly in line with a machine-gun nest. By the end of the war the barbs had been replaced by a continuous spiral of sharpened blades, razor wire.
Barbed-wire continued as a fortification device, used to keep people out and to keep people in, from the beaches of Normandy, via concentration camps, to battlefields and prisons across subsequent history. The invention and widespread use of tanks, armoured vehicles and bombers since the Great War has dimmed the horror it once inspired; warfare now tends to be more mobile, involving smaller masses of soldiers in less conspicuous trenches. Nonetheless, the image of wire fences topped with barbs remains visual shorthand for oppression, and the wire remains essential for many trades. Along with the machine gun it is one of the key inventions of the 19th century.
For sale (no commercial endorsement implied):
Electrified razor wire:
'Barbed tape', a simpler alternative: