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Why barbed wire for fencing lands was as transformative as the telephone

Sep 1, 2017 

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.

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 5 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.

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 4-​­year-​­old steers should be getting ripe for market.” And if the cowboys were outraged, the Native Americans suffered far worse.

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. (Corporation s are the evil owners)

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.

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 likesof 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.

How long is the reach of reason? Pretty slow and forgotten in the shorter terms?

Here’s a TED first: an animated Socratic dialog!

In a time when irrationality seems to rule both politics and culture, has reasoned thinking finally lost its power?

Watch as psychologist Steven Pinker is gradually, brilliantly persuaded by philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein that reason is actually the key driver of human moral progress, even if its effect sometimes takes generations to unfold.

The dialog was recorded live at TED, and animated, in incredible, often hilarious, detail by Cognitive

Steven Pinker. Psychologist
Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts — the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others.
In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest. Full bio

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Philosopher and writer
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes novels and nonfiction that explore questions of philosophy, morality and being. Full bio
Filmed in Feb. 2012

[“Rebecca Newberger Goldstein”] [“Steven Pinker”] [“The Long Reach of Reason”]

Cabbie: Twenty-two dollars.

Steven Pinker: Okay.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Reason appears to have fallen on hard times: Popular culture plumbs new depths of dumbth and political discourse has become a race to the bottom.

We’re living in an era of scientific creationism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and a resurgence of religious fundamentalism.

People who think too well are often accused of elitism, and even in the academy, there are attacks on logocentrism, the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking.

1:07 SP: But is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps reason is overrated.

Many pundits have argued that a good heart and steadfast moral clarity are superior to triangulations of overeducated policy wonks, like the best and brightest… that dragged us into the quagmire of Vietnam.

And wasn’t it reason that gave us the means to despoil the planet and threaten our species with weapons of mass destruction? (Kind of needing a taxonomy for defining various basis for reasons?)

In this way of thinking, it’s character and conscience, not cold-hearted calculation, that will save us.

Besides, a human being is not a brain on a stick. My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact. (All kinds of biases?)

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.|By Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

 RNG: How could a reasoned argument logically entail the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments? Look, you’re trying to persuade us of reason’s impotence. You’re not threatening us or bribing us, suggesting that we resolve the issue with a show of hands or a beauty contest.

By the very act of trying to reason us into your position, you’re conceding reason’s potency. Reason isn’t up for grabs here. It can’t be. You show up for that debate and you’ve already lost it.

SP: Can reason lead us in directions that are good or decent or moral? After all, you pointed out that reason is just a means to an end, and the end depends on the reasoner’s passions.

Reason can lay out a road map to peace and harmony if the reasoner wants peace and harmony, but it can also lay out a road map to conflict and strife if the reasoner delights in conflict and strife. Can reason force the reasoner to want less cruelty and waste?

 RNG: All on its own, the answer is no, but it doesn’t take much to switch it to yes. You need two conditions:

The first is that reasoners all care about their own well-being. That’s one of the passions that has to be present in order for reason to go to work, and it’s obviously present in all of us. We all care passionately about our own well-being.

The second condition is that reasoners are members of a community of reasoners who can affect one another’s well-being, can exchange messages, and comprehend each other’s reasoning. And that’s certainly true of our gregarious and loquatious species, well endowed with the instinct for language.

 SP: Well, that sounds good in theory, but has it worked that way in practice? In particular, can it explain a momentous historical development that I spoke about five years ago here at TED?

Namely, we seem to be getting more humane. Centuries ago, our ancestors would burn cats alive as a form of popular entertainment. Knights waged constant war on each other by trying to kill as many of each other’s peasants as possible. Governments executed people for frivolous reasons, like stealing a cabbage or criticizing the royal garden. The executions were designed to be as prolonged and as painful as possible, like crucifixion, disembowelment, breaking on the wheel. Respectable people kept slaves. For all our flaws, we have abandoned these barbaric practices.

 RNG: So, do you think it’s human nature that’s changed?

SP: Not exactly. I think we still harbor instincts that can erupt in violence, like greed, tribalism, revenge, dominance, sadism. But we also have instincts that can steer us away, like self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness, what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.

RNG: So if human nature didn’t change, what invigorated those better angels?

4:41 SP: Well, among other things, our circle of empathy expanded. Years ago, our ancestors would feel the pain only of their family and people in their village. But with the expansion of literacy and travel, people started to sympathize with wider and wider circles, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.

5:02 RNG: Can hard-headed scientists really give so much credit to soft-hearted empathy?

5:07 SP: They can and do. Neurophysiologists have found neurons in the brain that respond to other people’s actions the same way they respond to our own. Empathy emerges early in life, perhaps before the age of one. Books on empathy have become bestsellers, like “The Empathic Civilization” and “The Age of Empathy.”

5:25 RNG: I’m all for empathy. I mean, who isn’t? But all on its own, it’s a feeble instrument for making moral progress. For one thing, it’s innately biased toward blood relations, babies and warm, fuzzy animals.

As far as empathy is concerned, ugly outsiders can go to hell. And even our best attempts to work up sympathy for those who are unconnected with us fall miserably short, a sad truth about human nature that was pointed out by Adam Smith.

 Adam Smith: Let us suppose that the great empire of China was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe would react on receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people. He would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight, but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.

6:38 SP: But if empathy wasn’t enough to make us more humane, what else was there?

6:43 RNG: Well, you didn’t mention what might be one of our most effective better angels: reason. Reason has muscle. It’s reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy. Every one of the humanitarian developments that you mentioned originated with thinkers who gave reasons for why some practice was indefensible. They demonstrated that the way people treated some particular group of others was logically inconsistent with the way they insisted on being treated themselves.

7:17 SP: Are you saying that reason can actually change people’s minds? Don’t people just stick with whatever conviction serves their interests or conforms to the culture that they grew up in?

7:27 RNG: Here’s a fascinating fact about us: Contradictions bother us, at least when we’re forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held.

Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there. Few of us today feel any need to put forth a rigorous philosophical argument as to why slavery is wrong or public hangings or beating children. By now, these things just feel wrong. But just those arguments had to be made, and they were, in centuries past.

8:45 SP: Are you saying that people needed a step-by-step argument to grasp why something might be a wee bit wrong with burning heretics at the stake?

8:52 RNG: Oh, they did. Here’s the French theologian Sebastian Castellio making the case.

8:58 Sebastian Castellio: Calvin says that he’s certain, and other sects say that they are. Who shall be judge? If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? To Calvin? But then, why does he write so many books about manifest truth? In view of the uncertainty, we must define heretics simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself.

9:19 SP: Or with hideous punishments like breaking on the wheel?

9:22 RNG: The prohibition in our constitution of cruel and unusual punishments was a response to a pamphlet circulated in 1764 by the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria.

Cesare Beccaria: As punishments become more cruel, the minds of men, which like fluids always adjust to the level of the objects that surround them, become hardened, and after a hundred years of cruel punishments, breaking on the wheel causes no more fear than imprisonment previously did. For a punishment to achieve its objective, it is only necessary that the harm that it inflicts outweighs the benefit that derives from the crime, and into this calculation ought to be factored the certainty of punishment and the loss of the good that the commission of the crime will produce. Everything beyond this is superfluous, and therefore tyrannical.

SP: But surely antiwar movements depended on mass demonstrations and catchy tunes by folk singers and wrenching photographs of the human costs of war.

RNG: No doubt, but modern anti-war movements reach back to a long chain of thinkers who had argued as to why we ought to mobilize our emotions against war, such as the father of modernity, Erasmus.

Erasmus: The advantages derived from peace diffuse themselves far and wide, and reach great numbers, while in war, if anything turns out happily, the advantage redounds only to a few, and those unworthy of reaping it. One man’s safety is owing to the destruction of another. One man’s prize is derived from the plunder of another. The cause of rejoicings made by one side is to the other a cause of mourning. Whatever is unfortunate in war, is severely so indeed, and whatever, on the contrary, is called good fortune, is a savage and a cruel good fortune, an ungenerous happiness deriving its existence from another’s woe.

 SP: But everyone knows that the movement to abolish slavery depended on faith and emotion. It was a movement spearheaded by the Quakers, and it only became popular when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became a bestseller.

RNG: But the ball got rolling a century before. John Locke bucked the tide of millennia that had regarded the practice as perfectly natural. He argued that it was inconsistent with the principles of rational government.

John Locke: Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by common to everyone of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it, a liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.

11:54 SP: Those words sound familiar. Where have I read them before? Ah, yes.

Mary Astell: If absolute sovereignty be not necessary in a state, how comes it to be so in a family? Or if in a family, why not in a state? Since no reason can be alleged for the one that will not hold more strongly for the other, if all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves, as they must be if being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of men be the perfect condition of slavery?

RNG: That sort of co-option is all in the job description of reason. One movement for the expansion of rights inspires another because the logic is the same, and once that’s hammered home, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to ignore the inconsistency.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement inspired the movements for women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights and even animal rights. But fully two centuries before, the Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham had exposed the indefensibility of customary practices such as the cruelty to animals.

Jeremy Bentham: The question is not, can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?

 RNG: And the persecution of homosexuals.

JB: As to any primary mischief, it’s evident that it produces no pain in anyone. On the contrary, it produces pleasure. The partners are both willing. If either of them be unwilling, the act is an offense, totally different in its nature of effects. It’s a personal injury. It’s a kind of rape. As to the any danger exclusive of pain, the danger, if any, much consist in the tendency of the example. But what is the tendency of this example? To dispose others to engage in the same practices. But this practice produces not pain of any kind to anyone.

13:43 SP: Still, in every case, it took at least a century for the arguments of these great thinkers to trickle down and infiltrate the population as a whole. It kind of makes you wonder about our own time. Are there practices that we engage in where the arguments against them are there for all to see but nonetheless we persist in them?

14:00 RNG: When our great grandchildren look back at us, will they be as appalled by some of our practices as we are by our slave-owning, heretic-burning, wife-beating, gay-bashing ancestors?

14:13 SP: I’m sure everyone here could think of an example.

14:16 RNG: I opt for the mistreatment of animals in factory farms.

14:20 SP: The imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders and the toleration of rape in our nation’s prisons.

14:24 RNG: Scrimping on donations to life-saving charities in the developing world.

14:29 SP: The possession of nuclear weapons.

14:31 RNG: The appeal to religion to justify the otherwise unjustifiable, such as the ban on contraception.

14:38 SP: What about religious faith in general?

14:40 RNG: Eh, I’m not holding my breath.

14:42 SP: Still, I have become convinced that reason is a better angel that deserves the greatest credit for the moral progress our species has enjoyed and that holds out the greatest hope for continuing moral progress in the future.

14:55 RNG: And if, our friends, you detect a flaw in this argument, just remember you’ll be depending on reason to point it out.

Note: Reason is a continuous process, for individual and generations, and is an integral part of our survival instinct. If the women are taught to reason and reflect early on, the new generations will be inducted to reflect and learn to be pessimistic on many idiosyncrasies.

The educated mothers will generate a developing survival instinct. Those left on their own with truncated and incomplete knowledge of facts and discoveries will generate a disintegrating survival instinct. In all cases, state governments play a central and critical function in developing a mature survival instinct for the species.




June 2023

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