Today, we copy nature to build a fence. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It's like finding forbidden
fruit to find an invention that radically changes
everyday life by imitating nature. Nature is too
subtle. We seldom manage to copy her directly. Now
historian George Basalla tells us about barbed
We've tried to curb animal encroachments with
thorny barriers since Medieval -- even classical --
times. That need for protection grew acute in the
19th-century American West. Farmers crossed the
Mississippi into our vast central plains. Now they
had to protect farms from free-running herds of
sheep and cattle.
A small thorny tree, found in Texas, was called
Osage Orange. It has straight twigs with long,
sharp thorns. They're evenly spaced, and they grow
radially at all angles. Texas merchants began
selling Osage Orange seeds to farmers north of
them. Farmers began growing thorny hedges. In 1860,
Texas shipped 10,000 bushels of seed -- enough to
grow 60,000 miles of fence.
Osage Orange worked, but it had disadvantages. It
took three years to grow a fence. The fence could
never be moved. It housed vermin. It shaded crops.
Farmers needed something better.
Drawn wire was a medieval invention. It could be
made into a simple fence, but one that wouldn't
stand up to herds of cattle. We had, somehow, to
combine the virtues of wire and thorn bushes.
Michael Kelly of De Kalb, Illinois, filed the first
workable barbed-wire patent in 1868. He threaded
little blade-shaped metal thorns onto one of two
wires -- then twisted them together. He called it
his "thorny fence." De Kalb was the gateway to the
farmlands of the great plains. If this new product
had come from anyplace, it would've come from De
Kelly wasn't able to go into production until 1876.
By then, several other De Kalb inventors had
created their own imitations of Osage Orange. By
1880 De Kalb was turning out eighty million pounds
of barbed wire a year.
The cattleman/sod-buster wars followed. And in WW-I
the armies of Europe and America took barbed wire
to their trenches. By then, of course, barbed wire
had shaped the American Heartland.
We seldom manage to imitate nature that directly --
unless you include the fruits of the human mind in
nature's rich array. We haven't yet made a
successful airplane that can flap its wings like a
Oh, we did manage to copy the cocklebur and create
Velcro. Now and then we get away with it. And
that's exactly what we did in the 1870s when we
imitated the thorns of Osage Orange and created
barbed wire -- when we copied nature and created
the largest production of wheat and beef the world
had ever known.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Basalla, G., The Evolution of
Technology. New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1988, pp. 49-55.
Barbed wire samples assembled by Robert L. Myers
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.