1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Barbed Wire

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BARBED WIRE, a protective variety of fencing, consisting usually of several strands of wire twisted together with sharp spikes or points clinched or fastened into the strands.

In the United States, barbed wire for fencing was originally suggested to meet conditions existing in the western states, by reason of the large cattle-raising industry in sections where timber was scarce. Prior to its introduction, a No. 9 round or oval iron wire was popular on the frontier of the United States and in South America, as a fencing material. Large amounts were used annually for this purpose, but iron lacked strength, and single wire strand was not fully satisfactory on account of stretching in warm and contracting in cold weather, and of thus being broken. Cattle would rub against a smooth fence, and this constant pressure loosened the posts and broke the wire. To overcome this defect, ingenious people—the most successful being farmers—set themselves to find a way by which wire could be used and at the same time be free from destruction by the animals it was intended to confine. This investigation resulted in the invention of barbed wire. Soon after, automatic machinery was invented for rapidly and cheaply placing the barb upon the smooth wire, so that the cost of barbed wire is much less than the cost of smooth wire when it was in general use. So immediately did barbed wire find favour with the farmers of the United States, and, in fact, all over the world, that the manufacture of wire was revolutionized.

The history of barbed wire fencing is of recent date. In the United States—the real home of this industry—patents were taken out by Lucien B. Smith, Kent, Ohio, in 1867; by William B. Hunt, of Scott, N.Y., at almost the same time; and by Michael Kelly, of New York, a year later. The practical beginning of the industry, however, was in the patents issued to Joseph F. Glidden, De Kalb, Ill., 1874, on barbed fence wire, and during the same year, to Joseph F. Glidden and Phineas W. Vaughan, for a machine to manufacture the same. These inventions were the foundation of the system of patents under which barbed wire has been protected and sold. The development of the barbed wire industry would hardly have been possible without steel. Iron wire, used for fencing prior to the introduction of steel, was not suitable, seeing that iron does not possess sufficient tensile strength and lacks homogeneity, qualities which Bessemer and open-hearth steels possess in a high degree.

The advantages of galvanized barbed wire fencing are that it is almost imperishable, is no burden on the posts; does not oppose the wind with enough surface to rack the posts, thus allowing water to settle around them and rot them; is economical, not only in the comparative cheapness of its first cost but also in the amount of land covered by it; and is effective as a barrier against all kinds of stock and a protection against dogs and wild beasts. Cattle, once discovering what it is, will not press against it, nor even go near it, and thus it becomes an effective means of dividing the farmer's ranch into such fields as he may desire. It is quickly and cheaply constructed, and has the advantage of freedom from harbouring weeds. It affords no impediment to the view. A man can see across his farm, and ascertain what is going on in every portion within the scope of vision, as plainly as if there were no fences. It does not contribute to the formation of snow drifts as do other kinds of efficient fence. This makes it a favourite form of fencing for railroads and along highways. Finally, barbed wire composed of two wires twisted together, once firmly put in place, will retain its taut condition through many seasons without repair. The fact of the wire being twisted allows it to adapt itself to all the varying temperatures.

The introduction of barbed wire met with some opposition in America on supposed humanitarian grounds, but ample and extended tests, both of the economy and the humanity of the new material, silenced this objection. Now no American farmer, especially in the west, ever thinks of putting any other kind of fencing on his farm, unless it may be the new types of meshed wire field fencing which have been coming so generally into use since 1899. Generally speaking, the use of barbed wire fencing in other countries has not been as extensive as in the western United States. While it has been used on a comparatively large scale in Argentina and Australia, both these countries use a much larger quantity of plain wire fence, and in Argentina there is an important consumption of high-carbon oval fence wire of great strength, which apparently forms the only kind of fence that meets the conditions in a satisfactory manner.

It is interesting to note the largely increased demand for meshed wire field fencing in the more thickly settled-portions of the United States, and along the lines of railway. Beginning with 1899, there has been an annual increase in this demand, owing to the scarcity and high cost of labour, and the discontinuing of the building of rail fences. Meshed wire is considered by many a better enclosure for small animals, like sheep and hogs, than the barbed wire fence. Barbed wire has been popular with railroads, but of late meshed wire fencing has been substituted with advantage, the fabric being made of wires of larger diameter than formerly, to insure greater stability. The popularity of barbed wire is best shown by the following statistics:—

Approximate Production for the United States.


Year. Tons barbed wire. Tons meshed field fencing.
1874 5    
1875 300    
1876 1,500    
1877 7,000    
1878 13,000    
1879 25,000    
1880 40,000    
1890 125,000    
1900 200,000       50,000
1907 250,000     425,000


Barbed wire is usually shipped to customers on wooden spools, each holding approximately 100 lb or 80 to 100 rods. A hole is provided through the centre of the spool for inserting a bar, on which the reel can revolve for unwinding the wire as it is put up. After the wire is stretched in place, it is attached to the wooden posts by means of galvanized steel wire staples, ordinarily made from No. 9 wire. They are cut with a sharp, long, diagonal point and can be easily driven into the posts. On account of the rapid decay and destruction of wooden posts, steel posts have become popular, as also have reinforced concrete posts, which add materially to the durability of the fence. It is essential that barbed wire should be stretched with great care. For this purpose a suitable barbed wire stretcher is necessary.

Barbed wire fencing is now manufactured in various patterns. The general process may be outlined briefly as follows:—The wire is made of soft Bessemer or Siemens-Martin steel, and is drawn in the wire mill in the usual way. Galvanizing is done by a continuous process. The coil of wire to be galvanized is placed on a reel. The first end of the wire is led longitudinally through an annealing medium—either red-hot lead or heated fire-brick tubes—of sufficient length to soften the wire. From the annealing furnace, the wire is fed longitudinally through a bath of muriatic acid, which removes the scale, and from the acid, after a thorough washing in water, the wire passes through a bath of spelter, heated slightly above the melting point. After coming from the spelter and being cooled by water, the wire is wound on suitable take-up blocks into finished coils. From 30 to 60 wires are passing simultaneously in parallel lines through this continuous galvanizing apparatus, thus insuring a large output. The galvanizing gives the wire a bright finish and serves to protect it from the corrosive action of the atmosphere. There is a considerable demand for painted fencing, in the manufacture of which the galvanizing is dispensed with, and the spools of finished barbed wire, as they come from the barbing machine, are submerged in paint and dried. The barbing and twisting together of the two longitudinal strand wires is done by automatic machinery. A brief description of the manufacture of 2 and 4 point Glidden wire is as follows:—Two coils of wire on reels are placed behind the machine, designed to form the main or strand wires of the fence. One of the main wires passes through the machine longitudinally. One or two coils of wire are placed on reels at either side of the machine for making 2 or 4 point wire respectively. These wires are fed into the machine at right angles to the strand wire. At each movement of the feeding mechanism, when fabricating 2 point wire, one cross wire is fed forward. A diagonal cut forms a sharp point on the first end. The wire is again fed forward and instantly wrapped firmly around one strand wire and cut off so as to leave a sharp point on the incoming wire as before, while the bit of pointed wire cut off remains as a double-pointed steel barb attached firmly to the strand wire. This wire armed with barbs at regular intervals passes on through a guide, where it is met by a second strand wire—a plain wire without barbs. The duplex strand wires are attached to a take-up reel, which is caused to revolve and take up the finished barbed wire simultaneously and in unison with the barbing machine. In this way the strand wires are loosely twisted into a 2-ply strand, armed with barbs projecting at right angles in every direction.

When once started, the operation of barbed wire making is continuous and rapid. The advantage of two strands is the automatic adjustment to changes of temperature. When heat expands the strands, the twist simply loosens without causing a sag, and when cold contracts them, the twist tightens, all without materially altering the relative lengths of the combined wires. A barbed wire machine produces from 2000 to 3000 lb of wire per day of ten hours.

In some American states, the use of barbed wire is regulated by law, but as a rule these laws apply to placing barbed wire on highways. Others prohibit the use of barbed wire fencing to indicate the property line between different owners, unless both agree to its use. In some states the use of barbed wire is prohibited unless it has a top rail of lumber.

Barbed wire is also employed in connexion with "obstacles" in field fortifications, especially in what are known as "high wire entanglements." Pointed stakes or "pickets," 4 ft. high, are planted in rows and secured by ordinary wire to holdfasts or pegs in the ground. Each picket is connected to all around it, top and bottom, by lengths of barbed wire.

In England, where the use of barbed wire has also become common, the Barbed Wire Act 1893 enacted that, where there is on any land adjoining a highway within the county or district of a local authority, a fence which is made with barbed wire (i.e. any wire with spikes or jagged projections), or in which barbed wire has been placed, and where such barbed wire may probably be injurious to persons or animals lawfully using the highway, the local authority may require the occupier of the land to abate the nuisance by serving notice in writing upon him. If the occupier fails to do so within the specified time, the local authority may apply to a court of summary jurisdiction, and such court, if satisfied that the barbed wire is a nuisance, may by summary order direct the occupier to abate it, and on his failure to comply with the order within a reasonable time, the local authority may execute it and recover in a summary manner from the occupier the expenses incurred.