It happened today - October 27, 2015

Joseph GliddenWhen farmer Joseph F. Glidden applied for a patent on barbed wire back on October 27, 1873 he helped make World War I possible. You naughty man.

Well, no. It’s not just that it wasn’t what he had in mind when he found a way to make it easier to raise and manage cattle. It’s that virtually anything useful can be put to destructive ends. A hammer can be used to build houses or crack skulls. A gun can be used to commit a crime or prevent one. And barbed wire can be used to fortify an attacker’s position or a defender’s.

I don’t mean that tactically. I mean strategically. Remember, World War One began with a sweeping German advance through Belgium and into France that nearly captured Paris. A desperate Allied counterattack including the “Miracle on the Marne” involving taxicabs transporting troops then drove the Germans back to a line through northern France (and a small bit of Belgium around Ypres) from which the Allies spent four years pushing them back.

Barbed wire played no important role in the early phases of the war. And so in some sense it can be regarded as prolonging the war and helping the bad guys. But how could Glidden foresee that? Moreover the Allies made much more sophisticated use of the technological and tactical possibilities than they generally get credit for (see my documentary The Great War Remembered for a detailed exposition of this claim including with regard to the Battle of the Somme) and that included barbed wire to hold their positions and decimate the Germans when they were forced to counterattack.

I don’t have much time for the claim that you might as well do something bad, or invent something bad, because if you don’t somebody else will. But with very few exceptions it’s not inventions that are bad, it’s too many human motives.

Consider that the inventor of the rugged, reliable AK-47 was inspired by the effort to defend his homeland from Nazi invaders. It ended up being used to spread nasty Soviet-backed radical violence throughout the world. But that wasn’t his fault.

Likewise, inventing wire that kept cows from pushing over fences wasn’t evil, and Glidden carries no more responsibility for the manifold horrors that resulted from World War One happening when it did in the way it did than he does for the horrors of industrial farming today.

The fault lies not in our stars, even twisted pointy metal ones, but in the use we make of the things available to us.