Uses of metal wire prior to the electric age?

Reading a book concerning the adoption of electrical lighting systems around the turn of the previous century, as you may guess metal wires (and cable) play a important but unsung supporting role. OK, before such lights and their attendant newfangled generators (you need a lot of fine copper wire for good windings), there were telegraph systems which required large amounts of wire, and before that there many experimenters with their voltaic piles, ledyen jars, and twitchy frog muscles - these guys were using wire from the early 1700s (well, some like Ben Franklin, were using silk). Where’d they get it?
Being a good doper, I checked the wiki on wire, and there is a short history section - as I expected, most applications pre-electrical age were for jewelry and decoration, with a mention of British wire mills being found in the 1560s, to make pins and wool cards (guess those were iron).
So that’s two uses for wire, jewelry and pins. I also considered military uses, such as chain mail (are the loops cut from wire?) and perhaps crossbow wire-strings, and musical usage such as harps and lutes…and then I hit a wall.
Did they use cable in any great quantity prior to the industrial age?

What else would they have used metal wire for back then?

Hay bales.

Barbed wire and other types of fencing.

Fusee wire in clock mechanisms.

Are you sure about that? :dubious:
The hay bales that I recall from my youth were always tied with a type of twine called, appropriately enough, ‘hay rope’. I think that the use of ‘baling wire’ came about afterwards.

Wire was used to make pins, so that may have been one of the main uses before industrialization. From the mid-19th century, nails were also cut from wire.

Piano strings.

Gold or silver wire was sometimes used in embroidery.

Chaucer has mention of wire being used in compasses (to fix the needle to the centre of the rose, I’d guess). And I suspect there were other manufacturing/craft applications.

Oh, and for cutting cheese, soap, butter and the like.

No, before. I remember baler twine from when I was a kid, too, but the older guys had plenty to say about the wire bales they used to have to deal with.

A little before then, I think. None of the dairy farmers I lived around in the late 60s were still using wire bales.


Don’t confuse this with modern day round bales. The smaller size bales that one picked up by hand used to be wire bound before twine balers came in.

I’m not sure when they first baled hay (as opposed to just loading it loose in the wagon), but I’d be surprised if it were earlier than the late 19th century and more likely some time in the 20th. So it’s not what the OP is looking for.

Mail (“chain mail” is a neologism) was made from wire. But the advantage of mail is that it’s made from lots of short lengths.

Wire was made by hand or by mill power, using a draw plate or just smithing to shape (kind of like how noodles are formed by pulling, only with hot metal)

Wire cable, as in rope was in use by the early Victorian period, I would imagine the techniques were highly relevant since this was the industrialisation of a very much older process of wire manufacture

Stiff wire can be coiled, tempered and annealed into springs. I don’t know when the first helical springs were made, but it might well be before the age of electricity.

According to this page coiled springs were in use in the 15th century;
I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed even earlier.


Barbed wire is a much more recent invention than you’d think. It was invented in the second half of the 19th century. I doubt if anyone was using wire for fencing much before that. Lotsa sources, but Wikipedia is, as always, the most accessible:
As already stated, wire was used in decoration. There are plenty of illustrations and surviving examples of wire pulls, used mainly to make wire for metalwork and jewelry. Wire may also have been used for heavy-duty fastening, but I can’t honestly think of examples.
regarding electricity – the early experimenters used a lot of non-metallic conductors in place of wire, much of the time – silken ribbon and pack threads.
One of the difficulties I’ve always had with suggestions that the ancients might have done things like electroplating, using things like the “Baghdad battery” is precisely because it seems incredibly unlikely that the parallel development of metal wires for conduction (and the knowledge that they could have been used for this) existed.

One other use: Bell pulls and the like. When I was a kid, you could still purchase something called “bell wire” in the general goods stores, and it always bothered me that such wire was not insulated – who’d make wire for doorbells that could bleed off the voltage like that? I was too far removed from the age in which the force of a pulled handle at the door ran along the walls over pulleys to physically move a bell in the kitchen or servant’s quarters to know that this is what the wire was intended for – not for carrying electricity at all. To this day I wonder what most of the “bell wire” from my youth was actually used for. Probably not for bell pulls.

Thomas Jefferson had pantographs, which could have used string or various kinds of cord, but would’ve worked better with wire.

One thing to remember is that before the mid-1800s or so, iron and steel was expensive (steel in particular). So before then, while wire theoretically could have been used for baling hay or other low-impact, high-volume things, I wouldn’t expect very much actually was.

Thanks for the replies so far.

I should have qualified my question by adding a somewhat arbitrary cut-off, say 1745 (when the Leyden jar was invented). This would exclude usage such as Barbed Wire (although, did they have other types of wire fences before 1745?).
That said - coil springs (I guess fusee clocks use springs of a sort), that’s a good answer - this leads to the question of how much wire would mechanical clocks/watches use in their workings besides springs and pendulums (this use would go beyond the jewelry/decorative usage already mentioned).

As for Piano/Guitar/other string instruments, I’m lumping those with the Harp & Lute I mentioned in my OP.

This I agree was true, and keeping it in mind, let me rephrase the question a bit - say I was a Western European natural philosopher in 1700, and wanted to study this cool phenomonon of electricity, and didn’t want to fool with amber or silk. What would have been the most likely source of suitable metal wire available to a civilian of the time?
Music wire? Wire that would be otherwise used for pins/combs? Wire for military usage? Other souces that I can’t think of?

Weren’t gut strings more common for musical instruments prior to the 20th century? I thought steel strings were around for folk/blues guitar in the 19th century, but didn’t really get popular for other instruments until after the electric pickup was invented. But I could be wrong, and a quick search didn’t bring any enlightenment. Someone please fight my ignorance.

see my post. Barbed Wire didn’t come out until after 1850. I haven’t sen reference to wire used in any other type of fence before then, but I don’t really know. I suspect not – Historical re-creations, like Sturbridge Village or Farmer’s Village, which re-create life from the first half of the 19th century, don’t have wire fences.

Chicken wire was apparently invented in 1844:

…as was chain-link fencing: