In the settling of the western US, it fenced off farm acreage and kept out grazing cattle — and made the concept of land ownership in America a physical reality.
Late in 1876, so the story goes, a young man named John Warne Gates built a wire-fence pen in the military plaza in the middle of San Antonio, Texas. He rounded up some of the toughest, wildest longhorns in all of the state, or that’s how he described them. Others say that the cattle were docile. And there are those who wonder whether this story is true at all. But never mind.
John Warne Gates — a man who later won the nickname “Bet‐A‐Million Gates” — began to take bets as to whether these powerful, ornery longhorns could break through the fragile-seeming wire. They couldn’t. Even when Gates’s sidekick, a Mexican cowboy, charged at the cattle, howling curses and waving burning brands, the wire held. Bet‐A‐Million Gates wasn’t so worried about winning his wagers. He was selling a new kind of fence, and the orders soon came rolling in.
An advertisement from 1875 touted this fence as “The Greatest Discovery of the Age,” patented by J. F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois. John Warne Gates described it more poetically: “Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust.”
We simply call it barbed wire.
Compared to the telephone, barbed wire wreaked huge changes on the American West and much more quickly.
To call barbed wire the greatest discovery of the age might seem hyperbolic, even making allowances for the fact that Alexander Graham Bell was about to be awarded a patent for the telephone. But while we think of the telephone as transformative, barbed wire wreaked huge changes on the American West and much more quickly.
Joseph Glidden’s design for barbed wire wasn’t the first, but it was the best. Glidden’s design is the same as the barbed wire you can see today. The wicked barb is twisted around a strand of smooth wire; then a second strand of smooth wire is twisted together with the first to stop the barbs from sliding around.
Farmers snapped it up. Why? In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act. It specified that any citizen — including women and freed slaves — could lay claim to up to 160 acres of land in America’s western territories. All they had to do was build a home there and work the land for five years. The idea was that the Homestead Act would improve the land and improve the citizenry, creating free and virtuous hardworking landowners with a strong stake in the future of the nation.
It sounds simple. But the prairie was a vast, uncharted expanse. It had long been the territory of Native Americans. After Europeans arrived and pushed west, cowboys roamed free, herding cattle over the boundless plains. So settlers needed fences, not least to keep those free-roaming cattle from trampling their crops. There wasn’t much wood and certainly not enough to fence what was often called the “Great American Desert.” Farmers tried growing thornbush hedges, but these were slow-growing and inflexible. Smooth-wire fences didn’t work either — the cattle pushed through them.
Barbed wire solved one of the biggest problems settlers faced, but it also sparked the ferocious “fence-cutting wars.”
The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study in 1870 and concluded that until farmers could find fencing that worked, it would be impossible to settle the American West. The West, in turn, seethed with potential solutions: at the time, it was the source of more proposals for new fencing technologies than the rest of the world put together.
The idea that emerged from this intellectual ferment was barbed wire. It changed what the Homestead Act could not. Until it was developed, private ownership of prairie land wasn’t common because it wasn’t feasible.
While barbed wire spread because it solved one of the biggest problems settlers faced, it also sparked ferocious disagreements. The homesteading farmers were often trying to stake out property on the territory of Native American tribes. And 25 years after the Homestead Act came the Dawes Act, which forcibly assigned land to Native American families and gave the rest to white farmers. Philosopher Olivier Razac comments that the Dawes Act “helped destroy the foundations of Indian society.” No wonder these tribes called barbed wire “the devil’s rope.”
Old-time cowboys also lived by the principle that cattle could graze freely across the plains — the law of the open range — and they hated the wire. Cattle got nasty wounds and infections from running into it. When blizzards came, the cows would try to head south; sometimes they got stuck against the wire and died in the thousands. And while the attraction of the barbed wire was that it could enforce legal boundaries, many fences were illegal, too — attempts to commandeer common land for private purposes.
When barbed-wire fences went up across the West, fights broke out. In the “fence-cutting wars,” masked gangs with names like the Blue Devils and the Javelinas cut the wires and left death threats warning fence owners not to rebuild. There were shoot-outs, even a few deaths. Eventually, authorities clamped down. The fence-cutting wars ended, and the barbed wire remained.
“It makes me sick,” said one trail driver in 1883, “when I think of onions and Irish potatoes growing where mustang ponies should be exercising and where four-year-old steers should be getting ripe for market.” And if the cowboys were outraged, the Native Americans suffered far worse.
Before barbed wire, Western settlers had legal rights over their land but no way of exerting practical control.
These ferocious arguments reflected an old philosophical debate. The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke — a great influence on America’s Founding Fathers — puzzled over the problem of how anybody might legally own land. Once upon a time, nobody owned anything; land was a gift of nature or of God. But Locke’s world was full of privately owned land, whether the owner was the King or a simple yeoman. How had it become privately owned? Was it the result of a guy with a bunch of goons grabbing what he could?
If so, all civilization was built on violent theft. That wasn’t a welcome conclusion to Locke or his wealthy patrons. He argued that we all own our own labor. So if you mix your labor with the land that nature provides — for instance, by plowing the soil — then you’ve blended something you own with something that nobody owns. By working the land, he said, you’ve come to own it.
This wasn’t a purely theoretical argument. Locke was actively engaged in the debate over Europe’s colonization of America. Political scientist Barbara Arneil, an expert on Locke, writes, “The question, ‘How was private property created by the first men?’ is for … Locke the same question as, ‘Who has just title to appropriate the lands of America now?’” Locke also made the claim that the land in the new world was unclaimed — that is, because the indigenous tribes hadn’t “improved” the land, they had no right to it.
Not every European philosopher agreed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th-century French philosopher, protested the evils of enclosure. In his “Discourse on Inequality” he lamented, “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him.” This man, said Rousseau, “was the real founder of civil society.”
Rousseau did not intend that as a compliment. But it’s true that modern economies are built on private property — on the legal fact that most things have an owner, usually a person or a corporation. Modern economies are also built on the idea that private property is good, because it gives people an incentive to invest in what they own, whether that’s a patch of land in the American Midwest, an apartment in India, or even a piece of intellectual property such as the rights to Mickey Mouse. It’s a powerful argument, and it was ruthlessly deployed by those who wanted to claim that Native Americans didn’t have a right to their territory because they weren’t actively developing it.
Nobody has invented virtual barbed wire that can fence off songs as well as physical barbed wire fenced off land, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying.
However, legal facts are abstract. To get the benefits of owning something, you have to be able to assert control over it. Until barbed wire was developed, Western settlers had legal rights over their land but no way of exerting practical control.
Barbed wire is still used to fence off land across the world. And in other spheres of the economy, the battle to own in practice what you own in theory continues to rage. One example is digital rights management, or DRM. DRM systems are attempts to erect a virtual barbed wire around digital property, like a movie or a song, to prevent people from copying it illegally. Even though musicians may have copyright on their music, copyright is a weak defense against file-sharing software.
Nobody has invented virtual barbed wire that can fence off songs as effectively as physical barbed wire fenced off land, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying. And the “fence-cutting wars” of the digital economy are no less impassioned today than they were in the Wild West: digital rights campaigners battle the likes of Disney, Netflix and Google, while hackers and pirates make short work of the digital barbed wire. When it comes to protecting property in any economy, the stakes are high.
The rewards can be high, too. The barbed-wire barons — Bet‐A‐Million Gates, Joseph Glidden, and others — became rich. The year that Glidden secured his barbed-wire patent, 32 miles of wire were produced. Six years later, in 1880, the factory in DeKalb turned out 263,000 miles of wire, enough to circle the world ten times over.
Excerpted with permission from the new book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 Tim Harford.