The Life Cycle of an Invention

by novel_admin on June 30, 2011

How Barbed Wire Changed the World

Posted by Joanna Schneier

In 1867, Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio was faced with a problem that was very pressing for American ranchers: how do you keep your cows in the pasture without needing to erect long stretches of wooden fences?Although this is a very low tech problem, it was a critical issue as ranchers moved farther and farther west where wood or stones were not readily available.  People tried out several different methods, and all told in 1867 six patents were filed for metal or barbed-wire fences, including Smith’s patent.  For the next 20 years, patent after patent was filed for this cow-keeping device as people honed in what they needed and refined on the idea. Joseph Gidden, known as the ‘King of Barb’, made a fortune when he cracked the code by inventing a means to mass manufacture barbed wire.

So why are we talking about cows and fencing?  Barbed wire is an interesting study in how the market both drives innovation through necessity and also how consumers influence the end-product and the product’s usage.  If one mentions barbed wire in this and day and age, the images that come to mind are probably not of peaceful, grazing herds of cattle.  Barbed wire evokes images of war, of prisons, of concentration camps. Practically speaking, barbed wire is used in South America as a means of keeping large landowners’ land from the natives. It is used a barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border; keeping illegal immigrants out of the U.S. In Israel, it divides the Palestinian territories and it has been used in almost every refugee camp around the world. Barbed wire has been perfected for human entrapment, with razors replacing the barbs.

And while it still remains the standard fencing technology for cattle, by World War I barbed wire became known primarily as an implement of war and an impediment to human travel more than livestock. One thing is clear, barbed wire is both a symbol of a revolution in farming and a symbol of oppression and war. Barbed wire fences radically changed our history and it is the story of many people contributing small changes to a product whose very purposes has almost completely shifted from its inception.







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