Joseph Glidden (1813 – 1906)

The Man Who Helped Tame the West

Born in 1813 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, Joseph Glidden is a giant of the American west.  Most don’t know his name, but everyone knows his invention: barbed wire.

Barbed wire might seem like something simple, and it is, but it was an earthquake of an invention for the American west.  Following the Civil war settlers started pouring from the east to the relatively wide open west.  From Texas to Wyoming and everything in between wide swaths of land were available for farming and ranching and crisscrossed by railroads.  Joseph Glidden’s barbed wire impacted all three.

Although he would teach for a number of years after seminary, Glidden would spend most of his adult life working on farms, first his father’s in New York and then later his own in Illinois.  By the early 1870s Glidden had already had almost half a century of farm experience, which is where he learned first hand the destructive impact grazing livestock could have on crops.  At the time wood fences were the primary means of separating the two.  It was, however, expensive to build and maintain.  This was particularly true the farther west one moved as the states and territories were so much bigger.

The result of this westward push was conflict over land, even when ownership was clearly evident by titles.  The lack of clear and functional dividers of land amplified conflicts between Indians and settlers and particularly between farmers and ranchers. When there were no barriers cattle, sheep and buffalo could roam free as well be herded across land owned by many different owners but little delineating the lines of separation. The problems it caused ranged from eaten and trampled crops to the overgrazing of lands. These problems would often lead to conflict and sometimes violence.

Enter Joseph Glidden. His barbed wire was a functional solution to the problem of long fences between properties.  The concept was first invented in France, but it never took off because most land in Europe had long before been separated by rock walls and wooden fences.  In the United States it was a man named Michael Kelly who developed the first barbed wire in 1868.  His wire never took off however because the barbs were too sharp for people and livestock and they didn’t stay in place well.  Four years later, responding to a general call by the Patent Office Joseph Glidden invented his improved barbed wire, the one we’re all familiar with.  The spurs of his wire were not so sharp that they would maim humans or livestock and his double wrap design kept them in place. 

Glidden was issued his patent in 1873 and he immediately formed the Barb Fence Company with a partner and began manufacturing and selling.  The inexpensive and effective barrier became an immediate hit and across the country as farmers and ranchers couldn’t get enough. (Railroads too bought large amounts of barbed wire as it was a great tool for keeping livestock from wandering onto train tracks.)

Finally there was a way to quickly, effectively and inexpensively fence off large swaths of land just as the great migration west was picking up steam. Barbed wire helped bring relative order to the chaos that accompanied the rapid expansion of the nation westward. 

An overnight success at 60, three years later Glidden sold his half of Barb Fence but retained royalties. He would spend the next 20 years of his life fighting off (successfully) patent suits and in 1892 the Supreme Court would finally put the conflict to rest, the same year his patent ran out.

After selling his company Glidden would go on to become a major landowner, owning over 150,000 acres in Illinois and Texas and donating the land that would become Northern Illinois University. 

Joseph Glidden died in 1906 at the age of 93.  His invention and innovation had made him a rich man, leaving an estate worth over $1 million, which today would be more than $23 million.  Although financial success came to him late in life, Joseph Glidden did a great deal with his 93 years.  Although primarily a farmer, he was a teacher, a sheriff, a county supervisor, director of a bank and railroad and of course an inventor and salesman.  No doubt he had little inkling when he was waking up on cold New York mornings heading out to milk cows on his father’s farm that one day he would be remembered as the man who helped tame the west.

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