The barbed wire telephone system is an example of people meeting a need by using what they already have in new ways.
When telephones first appeared in the early 1900s companies were only interested in building networks for cities. Rural settlements were too sparsely populated and remote to justify investment in the wire, poles, equipment, and manpower needed to connect them.
But because of their remote locations and dispersed populations farmers had real needs for a telephone. Phones would allow them to get help during emergencies, share weather reports with other farmers, and simply talk and connect with one another to battle rural isolation.
So, farmers took matters into their own hands.
The early telephone system was little more than basic devices for speaking and listening, and junction boxes connected by a network of wires. Some explored ways in which they could replicate this system on their own.
They bought the phone units and junction boxes. For the network required to connect them they realized one was already in place: barbed wire fences.
Lost to history is the name of the person who looked at the miles of fence wire stretching across the prairie and thought:
Some farmers would run special phone wires along the top of existing fences. Others would use the existing barbed wire for the phone network. Junction boxes were installed in kitchens or the local post office. As Lynne Hayes describes in an article for Growing America:
“Typically, a smooth wire was strung from a telephone in a house or barn to a barbed wire fence. From there, it hooked into the top strand of barbed wire (most fences had at least three strands) and the telephone signal would follow the length of the wire to a second telephone that was connected to the barbed wire down the line.”
“With thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing spanning the country in the early 1900s, all the makings of this crude system were already in place.”
The “Farmer’s Phone System” is an early manifestation of “This could…” thinking—looking at an existing asset (the barbed wire fence system) and realizing it could meet a need (for a phone network).
At its peak, over three million people across the Midwest were connected by fence wire phones—more than were connected by the official Bell system.
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