Iowa’s 1880s Big “Beat ‘Em-all Barbed Wire Company” Patent Controversy

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Courtesy Library of Congress

Barbed wire fence in Grundy County, Iowa, by photographer John Vachon, published in 1940.

“A lot of fellows tried to drive the bull into the wires with him on it,” J.H. Harrington described an incident that had occurred at the Delaware County fair at Delhi in 1859. When a “somewhat intoxicated” fair goer hopped on a bull’s back and rode around a track enclosed by a strange looking fence, Harrington took notice.

That fence, made of barbs twisted around strands of wire, was unlike anything he’d seen. It was the first time he had seen what became known as barbed wire fence.

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Cheryl MullenbachCheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, newspaper editor, and public television project manager. She is the author of four non-fiction books for young people. Double Victory was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and The Industrial Revolution for Kids was selected for “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” Her most recent book, Women in Blue traces the evolution of women in policing.

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Harrington testified in 1888 in a north Iowa courtroom, presided over by Judge Oliver Shiras. The Washburn & Moen Company, Worcester, Mass., had brought suit against the Beat ‘Em-all Barbed Wire Company of Cedar Falls for patent infringement.

Harrington, a defendant for the Iowa company, helped make the case that barbed wire had been invented by an Iowa farmer named Alvin Morley. Morley, described by the New York Times as an “eccentric old bachelor,” had spent time in a Pennsylvania insane asylum before moving to Iowa. The Iowa company manufactured their fencing using the designs of Morley; while the Massachusetts company manufactured their fencing based on a design and patent of a man named Joseph Glidden.

Lawyers for Washburn & Moen argued that an insane man couldn’t have invented barbed wire. In support of their argument, the company lawyers described the traveling cow pen that Morley had patented in 1866. The triangular pen with wheels attached to each corner allowed a cow to push the pen along with her as she walked around the pasture, yet prevented her from wandering too far. They claimed it was a “hare-brained, ridiculous” invention—proof that Morley was incapable of inventing useful objects.

Lawyers for the Beat ‘Em-all Barbed Wire Company claimed Morley had invented barbed wire long before Joseph Glidden. Although Alvin had died in 1867, there were plenty of witnesses who testified they had seen his barbed wire in an exhibit at the Delaware County fair in 1859. A 40-year-old witness at the trial was only 9 at the time of the fair, but he recalled vividly scuffling with some boys near Morley’s display. He had cut his face quite badly as he fell into the fence, and he still had the scars to prove it.

After sifting through “nearly a wagon-load of evidence” and hearing from about 180 men who had provided depositions, Judge Shiras issued a decision. Alvin Morley was the inventor of barbed wire fencing, and the Washburn & Moen Company no longer had a monopoly on the sale of the product. No one believed for a minute that Washburn and Moen wouldn’t appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. And they did.

In 1892 the Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision, and Joseph Glidden’s patent was upheld.

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Sources

  • “Barbed-wire Men Beaten,” Inter Ocean, (Chicago, Ill) Jan. 6, 1888.
  • “A Big Monoploy Beaten,” New York Times, Jan. 6, 1888.
  • The Federal Reporter, vol 33, p 261, Jan-May 1888.
  • Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society, May 1990, vol 72, p 369-518.
  • U.S. Supreme Court decision: Feb 29, 1892.

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