In A Nutshell
In the late 19th century, the open range of the American West was carved up by barbed wire. During the same period, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone networks were being installed in large American cities. The early telephone companies ignored low-profit rural areas, so independent ranchers bootstrapped their own system out of their existing barbed wire fences.
The Whole Bushel
In 1874, Joseph Farwell Glidden obtained the patent for an “Improvement in Wire Fences.” Before barbed wire, ranchers had to busy themselves with stopping cattle from crossing ranch boundaries and sorting out who owned what cattle at market time. Tough cattle plowed right through smooth wire fencing, and the arid West was no place to grow a hedge.
Barbed wire changed all that. New manufacturing techniques made barbed wire cheap, and enclosing one’s land became affordable for the first time. The “twisted pair” of wire with a transverse barb deterred cattle from roaming where they pleased. By 1880, about one million miles of barbed wire fencing per year was being produced and installed in the Old West.
Alexander Graham Bell was granted the telephone patent in 1876. The new device revolutionized communication because anyone could pick up a telephone and speak to anyone else with a telephone set. The only other instant communication option was the telegraph, which required a skilled operator. Instead, the telephone provided the near-miraculous ability to speak directly with another human being, in normal conversation, miles and miles away.
The early phone companies installed their systems in urban areas. Infrastructure is the main cost of any utility, and early phone company investors saw no profits in stringing hundreds of miles of expensive wire and poles to connect sparsely populated areas of the American West.
Enter the already-existing barbed wire fences. American farmers and ranchers already had a tradition of co-operatives or “co-ops.” These collectives allowed ranchers to deal with fickle commodity markets, fight wildfires, share tools and experience, and deal with water and other resources. It was only natural that they would use their newest resource, the barbed wire fence, to communicate with each other.
A typical installation would cost $25 and include a standard telephone set chosen by the co-op, two dry-cell batteries to power that portion of the system, and other hardware which acted as a primitive form of switchboard. Barbed wire was fastened to posts by metal staples, grounding the wire and making it useless as a conductor. So the farmers and ranchers would choose one wire of the fence to insulate and use as the telephone cable. Wire fences were a haphazard affair, using whatever post material was handy. Any reasonably straight stick or branch would do. And so with the insulators; leather scraps, corncobs, snuff boxes, or scraps of rubber inner tube were used to separate the wire from the post. One of the more common items were glass bottlenecks, and glass insulators remain a very popular insulating device for power and communication cables to this day.
Property lines, and therefore the fencing, were a chaotic patchwork. Not every fence line connected to another property, and some properties were very distant. Farmers bridged these gaps with specially offered insulated cables buried underground or strung on special tall poles. This grassroots, networked communication system had Meshnet beat by a solid 130 years.
The telephone co-op would publish a directory, perhaps not even in alphabetical order. Each family would be assigned a certain number of rings for their phone. If the phone rang two times and two rings was your signal, you would pick up the phone and talk to the caller. Of course, every phone was connected to the wire at the same time, so anyone could pick up their telephone set and listen to your conversation. This early “party line” was a problem; if too many people were listening to your conversation, the signal would degrade and you’d have to shout at them to hang up their phones so that you could speak your piece.
Using this network, farmers could relay news of wildfires, stock prices, sporting events, or most commonly, neighborly greetings and gossip.
By the 1920s, the telephone revolution had stabilized into the “Ma Bell” monopoly, and many rural areas were offered formal telephone service, although the old barbed-wire co-op networks persisted into the 1940s in some areas. This original network technology hack was relegated to the history books, and not even the early Phreakers of the 1970s can claim to have circumvented the big phone companies quite as effectively as tobacco-spitting, over-alled farmers in the 1880s.
Show Me The Proof
Inc.com: How the West Was Wired
gizmodo.com: Barbed Wire Fences Were An Early DIY Telephone Network
BLDGBLOG: Fence Phone
US Archives: Barbed Wire Patent #157,124