Members of a U.S Army engineering brigade place concertina wire around an encampment for troops near the U.S.-Mexico International bridge in Donna, Texas on November 4, 2018.
Eric Gay/AP Photo
origin story / science

That Beautiful Barbed Wire

The concertina wire Trump loves at the border has a long, troubling legacy in the West.
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Ohioan Lucien Smith patented barbed wire in 1867. Joseph Glidden patented the most widely used barbed wire fence in 1874, a dozen years after the passage of the Homestead Act. Even in its infancy, long before its uses on battlefields and concentration camps, this technology was far from politically neutral. Barbed wire, Reviel Netz writes in his history of the invention, “is contagious” because of the very fact that barbs face inward and outward, enclosing a rancher’s herd but also wounding any other cows that might try to encroach upon that land. “By enclosing a space,” Netz points out, “[barbed wire] is thereby automatically present in all areas bordering on that space.” It’s a tool of violence and surveillance. The 1885 Glidden Journal, a publication of the barbed wire company headed by Joseph Glidden, described its fence: “It watches with argus eyes the inside and outside, up, down, and lengthwise; it prevents the ‘ins’ from being ‘outs’; and the ‘outs’ from being ‘ins’; watches at day-break, at noontide, at sunset and all night long.” People who put up barbed wire fences when the technology was new were making statements about the nature of landowning in the West—defining the boundaries of their property with the permanent potential for violence.

The West’s enclosure via barbed wire had its victims. In 1947, historian Wayne Gard cataloged the resistance to barbed wire in Texas, which came from ranchers whose cattle couldn’t access water because so much open range was now fenced, as well as cowboys who were rendered obsolete by the new technology. When the fences first went up, owners of livestock sued railroads that were using them to keep animals off the tracks, seeking to hold the corporations liable for the damage the cows sustained. The blizzards of the mid-1880s concentrated tens of thousands of cows against new barbed wire fences in Texas, where they died of starvation or cold. The first generations of fences had larger, sharper barbs. The cows bashed against the fences and got wounds, which would get infested with screwworms.
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