Improved fencing systems were vital to the farmers who had headed west to settle in the Great Plains. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed honest citizens to claim up to 160 acres if they built a home and worked the land for five years, but the new settlers struggled to erect fences in an area where there were few trees to provide timber. Roaming cattle could push through smooth wire fences and trample crops.
Various early versions of barbed wire had been patented before Joseph Glidden, a farmer from DeKalb, Illinois, developed a form of double-stranded wire that could be mass produced to specifications that are virtually unchanged today. Improving on an earlier design by New York resident Michael Kelly, an inventor called Henry Rose had exhibited a fencing system of barbs mounted on a wooden rail at the DeKalb county fair. Inspired by the idea that a barbed fence would keep livestock away from the fence, and believing that barbs fixed to wire would be easier to both produce and install, Glidden set about making his own improvements.
Glidden adapted a hand operated coffee mill to create wound barbs that would then be threaded onto a strand of wire. A second strand would be laid alongside, and both were attached to a hook on the side of an old grinding wheel. Rotating the grindstone twisted the two wires together and held the barbs on the first wire in place.
The new barbed wire had a dramatic effect. The expanse of the Great Plains was fenced off, changing the lifestyles of the cattlemen whose herds grazed there and the Native Americans whose already-dwindling territory was now being enclosed by ‘the Devil’s rope’.