barbed wire, wire composed of two zinc-coated steel strands twisted together and having barbs spaced regularly along them. The need for barbed wire arose in the 19th cent. as the American frontier moved westward into the Great Plains and traditional fence materials—wooden rails and stone—became scarce and expensive. Of the many early types of barbed wire, that invented in Illinois in 1873 by Joseph F. Glidden proved most popular. The advent of barbed-wire fences on the plains transformed the cattle industry, ending the open range to a large extent and making possible the introduction of blooded cattle. The transformation was not without protests, which often led to bloodshed. In the 20th cent. barbed wire gained importance as an instrument of defense through its use in wartime for entanglements and obstacles. Barbed-wire fences have been replaced in some applications by other types, e.g., woven-wire fences.
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