From the Farm and Back: A History of Barbed Wire Fencing

In De Kalb, Illinois in 1873, a man named Henry Rose designed barbwire fencing to poke animals that came too close so they would be unable to bust through the fence.  His original design was supposed to be attached to an existing fence. In the western United States, in areas lacking trees appropriate for building wooden fencing, barbwire fencing was a practical necessity.  


Jacob Haish, Isaac Ellwood, Joseph Glidden


Soon after Rose’s barbwire fence was introduced, a group of three individuals, a lumberman named Jacob Haish, a hardware merchant named Isaac Ellwood, and a farmer named Joseph Glidden took Rose’s idea, but made it even better.  Just a year after Henry Rose’s design, on November 24, 1874, Joseph Glidden was issued a patent to make his fences.  Together, Glidden and Ellwood formed The Barb Fence Company.  


Known Facts

The business took off quickly, producing 300 tons in 1875 and growing to 130,000 tons in 1885.  There were many reasons for the barbwire’s success, one of which was its inexpensive price tag.  Despite its affordability, barbwire, unlike wooden fencing, would not rot or burn in the event of fire.  It was also easy to put up, strong, durable and long-lasting. 


The Aftermath of Gidden’s Death


In 1876, Glidden sold half of his patent to Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company in Worcester, Massachusetts.  The sale brought him over $60,000 in royalties.  Hundreds of different versions of the barbwire fence were invented and introduced, and nearly 600 patents produced.  By his death in 1906, Glidden was one of the richest men in America, worth approximately $1 million. 


Soon after Glidden’s death, barbwire became a popular military tool during wartime, acting as a defense mechanism by creating obstacles and entanglements for enemies.  Many inventions in the early twentieth century prove just how powerful barbwire’s impact really was during the World Wars.  In Germany, the military fitted a motor-car with an enormous set of cutting blades, powerful enough to rip through barbwire fence roadblocks, which threatened consequences as serious as decapitation for unprepared, fast-driving soldiers. A special tool designed to attach to a Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle was used to cut barbwire. When a rifleman lunged toward a wire, lifted his rifle in the air, allowing the tool to clamp closed over the wire, slicing it in half.  There were even specially designed tents, sleeping bags and blankets to protect Allied soldiers from barbed wire.    


An advanced version of original barbwire fencing, triple concertina barbwire was an effective war tool during World War II due to its quick deployment.  Five men working together were easily able to assemble fifty yards of this fencing in a matter of just fifteen minutes.  This barrier is made from two parallel concertinas attached to wire twists and covered with a third concertina.  These barriers could be assembled in trenches during downtime, and deployed effectively even in darkness.  Even soldiers who fought in Korea and Vietnam depended on the protection provided by barbwire, as well as tools used to remove it.  


Today, barbwire is used in a variety of different ways, from homesteaders living off the grid who simply seek to protect what’s theirs, to the perimeters around prisons to deter potential escapees.  Although barbwire can still be found on many farms today, like that found at, the effectiveness of this invention has taken it far beyond protecting the wild frontier. 

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