Today, we turn barbed wire inside out. The Honors College at the
University of Houston presents this program about the machines that
make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
When did you last see barbed wire? Chances
are as a tattoo on some fellow's bicep. But barbed wire was more than
a fashion statement when J.F. Glidden invented it in 1874. The two
twisting strands of metal wire, bursting every several inches into spikey
knots, soon became a symbol of the modern age on both sides of the Atlantic.
Glidden's creation followed the 1862 Homestead Act, which opened the American
West. The act encouraged pioneers to settle land on the far side of the
Mississippi: 80 acres of land was yours -- free! -- if you were willing to work it.
How were you to protect your patch of land, though? Predators like wolves were
the least of your problems. There were also disgruntled native Americans who'd
been pushed off that same land by a variety of measures: some legal, some not,
all unsavory. And there were the cowboys, driving vast herds of cattle across
Enter Glidden's invention. Easy to transport and erect thanks to its lightness,
resistant to the heat thanks to its composition, and dirt cheap to buy thanks
to its simplicity, barbed wire seemed heaven sent. And not just to settlers:
the American Wire and Steel Company increased its production of barbed wire
from 250 tons in 1875 to 135,000 tons in 1901.
The arrival of barbed wire spelled the end of the open range. It also signaled
the demise of the cowboy. As played by Kirk Douglas in the movie
Man Without a Star, the cowboy
became a figure of mythic proportions. Douglas plays the loner Dempsey Rae who
thrives on a world without frontiers. But his body, scarred by barbed wire,
reveals that this is world already past. At the movie's end, Douglas rides into
a sunset: it so happens that the scene is framed by his nemesis, barbed wire.
Within a century, barbed wire had first become a weapon of war, then the symbol
of ultimate evil in the Nazi concentration camps. Glidden's invention was turned
inside out. Meant originally to keep out, it now kept in. But
the "predators" were neither wolves nor cowboys: defined by their politics, race
or religion, they weren't even considered human. They were penned inside two rows
of electrified barbed wire where, like beasts, they were branded with numbers.
And like beasts, they were referred to as kopf (or head) and
stück (or piece). But unlike even beasts, they were killed or
worked to death.
Unfree and anonymous, the concentration camp inmate embodies the twentieth century
reality of totalitarianism. Inmates could achieve liberty only by throwing themselves
against the electrified wire. But Dempsey Rae was free; and he symbolizes the
nineteenth century American myth of individualism. He pursued liberty by galloping
away from barbed wire. Yet in both cases, and in ways J.F. Glidden could never
imagine, barbed wire challenges our common understanding of what it means to be human.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
O. Razac, Histoire politique du barbelé. (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000).
For more on barbed wire, see Episode 816.
All photos by J. Lienhard.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.