About R. Buckminster Fuller
R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an architect, philosopher, mathematician, teacher and visionary whose atypical career has always defied easy explanation. Fuller described himself as a "comprehensive anticipatory design scientist," one who was interested in leveraging science to prepare for and fulfill the needs of the planet's burgeoning population; needs that included housing, education, and resource management. Best known as the inventor of the Dymaxion car and the geodesic dome, Fuller also developed a novel system of mathematics known as Synergetics. During the latter part of his career, he gave thousands of lectures around the world, such that he became almost a household name in the United States during the 1970's.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, or "Bucky," as he was known by his friends and colleagues, was born in 1895 in Milton, MA to Richard Buckminster Fuller (senior), a successful businessman, and Caroline Wolcott. The Fuller family was an established Boston-area clan which had sent several generations to Harvard. Fuller's great-aunt, Margaret Fuller, was an important New England Transcendentalist who edited the literary journal The Dial together with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Bucky's childhood, while not unhappy, was less than charmed. He suffered from extreme undiagnosed nearsightedness until the age of four and was taunted by elder sister Leslie for being 'stupid.' The family spent their summers at their home on Bear Island, Maine, where Bucky learned to sail and picked up a lifelong love for the sea. Bucky's father suffered a stroke in 1907, and for the next three years the young Fuller saw his father decline from a healthy, successful businessman to a frail invalid. His father died in 1910, leaving behind his wife and four children.
Richard Fuller's illness and death put the family into a noticeable financial decline; many of the household servants were dismissed, and as the eldest male in the family Bucky had to take on a number of arduous household chores1. By the time he entered Harvard in 1913, he was not admitted to any of the university's prestigious social clubs. Fuller tried to compensate by distinguishing himself in sports, but an injury to the knee during football practice took him out of the game. He was desperate to receive recognition from his peers, and rather than focusing on academics he squandered his tuition money to court showgirls. He was expelled from Harvard in 1914 and the family elders felt that an apprenticeship in a Canadian textile mill owned by a distant relative would help to straighten out the wayward Bucky. He was reinstated at Harvard after completing his apprenticeship, but still could not succeed or fit in there; he was expelled for the second and final time in 1915 for "lack of ambition."
During the course of his lifetime, Bucky would witness revolutionary changes in technology, transportation, and communications that would alter the very fabric of society. From an early age, he always marveled at these changes, and felt that the latest technologies could and should be applied to improve living conditions for everybody on our 'spaceship earth.' He was fond of saying that technology had given us the tools to make humanity a 100% success. "Think of it. We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before-that we now have the option for all humanity to "make it" successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment." 2
Many of Fuller's most famous architectural and design works were in fact attempts to leverage technology in service of humanity. For example, his 4-D House (1928), which would later be refined and renamed the Dymaxion House, was a lightweight, autonomous shelter built around a central core containing the power supply and plumbing. Radiating from the power core were several bedrooms, each with its own identical bathroom; a utility/laundry room; and a library equipped with a radio, books, maps, globes, and other tools for self-education. The fully-equipped house was designed to weigh 6000 lbs and to cost $1500, at a time when the average unfurnished home cost $8000. Furthermore, because the house was transportable, it could remain with a family for life; if they needed to move, they could simply air-lift the home to a different site and continue on with their activities. 3
Likewise, the Dymaxion Car was conceived of as a lightweight vehicle that would use shipbuilding technologies and streamlining to achieve both high speeds and good fuel economy (approximately 30 mpg, which was excellent at that time.) The original Dymaxion car could hold up to 11 passengers and reach a top speed of 120 mph. The Dymaxion car can be thought of as the original mini van, moving people efficiently from place to place with both speed and style. 4 Unfortunately, the vehicle was difficult to steer and became unsteady particularly in transverse winds. Its public unveiling at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 ended in a fatal accident, effectively quelling enthusiasm for the car and causing some of its original investors to back out. Fuller redesigned the Dymaxion car as a five-seater with a shorter, more stable body; two of these were built as prototypes, but the car was never manufactured commercially.
As a designer, Bucky is best known for his work on geodesic structures, which take points on a curved surface (such as a sphere) and connect them by means of straight lines, forming a structure of interlocking polygons. A typical geodesic dome, for example, might be a spherical shape built out of a series of triangles. Made up of identical straight members joined by simple interconnects, geodesic structures exhibit a great strength to weight ratio and are easy and economical to construct. The 145-foot diameter Kaiser Dome in Honolulu, Hawaii (1957), for example, was assembled out of its component parts in about 22 hours. One of Fuller's most famous domes was the United States Pavilion, a 250-foot diameter structure built for the World's Fair of 1967 in Montreal, Canada. Although a 1976 fire burned the acrylic panels that once faced the dome, its underlying structure survived intact, and can still be seen today on the Ile St-Helene. Other applications of geodesic structures have included temporary housing shelters for the U.S. Marines, which could be airlifted by helicopter to remote locations (these were prototyped and used in a very limited sense during the 1950's); playground structures for children; and an enormous hangar in Long Beach, CA, built in 1983, that, until recently, housed Howard Hughes' enormous Spruce Goose airplane.
During the 1960's and 1970's, Fuller was invited to speak at universities and institutions around the world, and even gained a following among the countercultural movement. His visions of low-cost, mass-produced dwellings attracted the attention of the back-to-land hippies, who sought a self-sufficient lifestyle independent of the 'Establishment' In May 1965, one of the first hippie communes in the U.S., named Drop City, was established near Trinidad, Colorado. Drop City's home-grown shelters included several geodesic domes built out of scrap lumber, old car tops, and other scavenged material, sometimes topped off by patchwork crazy-quilts. R. Buckminster Fuller awarded the commune his "Dymaxion Award" in 1966, praising their shelters, but in time he began distancing himself from this group, not wishing to be associated with their anarchic attitudes and practices.
During these decades, Bucky continued his intellectual work, writing Synergetics and Synergetics 2, large tomes that explain his peculiar brand of mathematics, based upon the triangle and the tetrahedron as structural elements. Although it was well-received by Fuller's supporters, because of its odd mixture of mathematics and metaphysics, the books received little notice from the academic mathematical community. He was also a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois, Carbondale from 1959-1968, working with students on various research projects. One of these projects matured into the World Game, which was a multiplayer logistics game intended to teach children and adults alike how, with a little planning and negotiation, world resources could be more evenly divided for the benefit of humanity at large. The World Game was lauded as a unique way to raise awareness about world resources, which, if properly accounted for and divided, could bring greater benefits the world population at large.
Bucky kept up an ambitious schedule of lecturing and teaching until his death in 1983. Although he lived in Southern California, he continued to be associated with Southern Illinois University's Edwardsville campus, and was an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Although he was in good health for his age, the circumstances of Bucky's death, within hours of his wife Anne's passing, are both mysterious and poignant. In May, 1983, Anne was hospitalized for complications related to a recurrent bout of cancer, which had first been diagnosed some eight years prior. She fell into a coma, and Bucky spent many hours by his unconscious wife's bedside. On July 1, 1983, he suffered a massive heart attack in the hospital and died a few hours later; never awaking from her coma, Anne drifted gently to her death some 36 hours later. Of their passing, Bucky's daughter Allegra commented, "Who knows if she knew he had gone ahead." 5
1 Sieden, Lloyd Steven. Buckminster Fuller's Universe: An Appreciation. (New York: Plenum Press, 1989), 13.
2 Fuller, R. Buckminster. Utopia or Oblivion. (Bantam Books, New York, 1969).
3 Sieden, 1989, 128-9.
4 See Dymaxion Car, in Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.
5 See Notes on Anne and Bucky Fuller's Death, Buckminster Fuller Institute Website.