Icon of the Month: barbed wire | icon 044 | February 2007

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words Will Wiles

Barbed wire killed the cowboy. As the population of the American West grew in the mid 19th century and competition for land increased, areas were enclosed by their owners. This meant big changes to the job description of the much-mythologised chaps in chaps – no longer were they quite the free-roaming knights of the prairie. Their considerably easier job was to patrol a fence.

This fence became barbed wire thanks to the economics of the frontier. Wood, stone and labour were all in short supply. Wire pulled taut between wooden posts was the cheapest option, and quick and easy to install. But wire alone is not enough to hold back 635kg of determined beef. What was needed was a way of making an attack on a fence a very painful choice for a cow. So barbs were twisted into the wire that would catch and tear flesh if pressed against. The harder an animal fights, the more injuries it sustains – the lesson is quickly learned.

New Yorker Michael Kelly was the first to add these barbs, in 1868, and in 1874 Joseph Glidden of Illinois created the improved version we recognise today. But his position as the “father of barbed wire” was hard won. A quick succession of competing patent applications and three years of legal wrangling followed his design.

Named “the Devil’s Rope” by religious groups, even on the unsentimental frontier barbed wire was considered cruel. But for all the momentous changes that it was wreaking on the decreasingly wild West, barbed wire remained an essentially agricultural invention. This changed in 1899 when the British Empire faced a revolt among the Boer population of South Africa.

South Africa’s veldt was in many ways identical to much of the American West – arid, expansive and good only as rangeland. Fighting across thousands of square miles of sparsely populated frontier, the empire became viciously tangled in asymmetric warfare, with the Boers relying on guerrilla tactics and mobility to overcome their huge disadvantages in strength and wealth. In response, the British resorted to forcibly uprooting the thinly spread civilian population and “concentrating” them into camps surrounded by barbed wire.

Thus the concentration camp was born. People were treated like cattle, and herded into what were essentially human-scale livestock enclosures. As an omen, it could hardly have been more grim. The Nazi innovation was simply to add the cattle truck at one end, and the slaughterhouse at the other.

Barbed wire is the emblem of industrialised human misery. From the end of the Boer wars, it was a dozen years until the wire became an integral part of the brutal stasis of trench warfare in Flanders. A couple of short decades later, and it became the symbol of Dachau and Stalin’s gulag. From Changi to Vietnam and Srebrenica, the image of people behind barbed wire is shorthand for man’s inhumanity to man. This cattle deterrent became a crown of thorns for the modern age – implacable, cruel, abundant, a tendril of naked brute force.

However, such savage imagery has not acted as a deterrent to creativity. There are some 530 patents for different types of barbed wire on the books, according to the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. German product designer Matthias Megyeri has even attempted to make the wire more friendly by disguising the barbs as butterflies and hearts – but it’s hard to imagine where such a product might come in handy, save perhaps in Satan’s nursery.

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