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R. Buckminster Fuller Collection Architect, Systems Theorist, Designer, and Inventor

What is a geodesic dome?

R. Buckminster Fuller is probably best known as the inventor of the geodesic dome. In order to understand what a geodesic dome is, we first have to understand the word geodesic. Generally speaking, a geodesic structure is a spherical structure which is constructed out of interconnecting lines rather than out of curved surfaces. For example, you can look at the picture of the geodesic playdome (sometimes called a jungle gym). The playdome itself resembles a half-sphere, but it is constructed out of straight lines. Therefore, a geodesic structure uses a series of short, interconnected straight lines to approximate a spherical or rounded surface. Another good example of a geodesic structure might be a soccer ball, which is spherical in shape but which is composed of geometric panels (hexagons and pentagons). You can think of the edges of the hexagons and pentagons as straight lines which are interconnected to form the soccer-ball sphere.

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A geodesic dome, like the playdome pictured above, is built out of interconnected straight bars. Bucky Fuller built many domes using geodesic principles, including a 250-foot diameter dome for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, Canada. The advantages of a geodesic dome are that it is lightweight, easy to construct out of component parts, is resistant to wind and shocks, and can be built in almost any size, from a small jungle gym to an enormous hangar for housing airplanes. Fuller himself lived in a dome home while he was a research professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale from 1959-1970.

Fuller's patent on the geodesic dome structure in architecture predated a fascinating discovery in the field of chemistry during the 1980s of a spherical carbon-60 molecule whose structure bore a striking resemblance to Fuller's geodesic domes. In 1996, Harold Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for elucidating the structure of the carbon-60 molecule, which they named the "buckminsterfullerene" in honor of Fuller's earlier work on such structures. C-60 "buckyballs," as they are known, are the most famous of the class of molecules called fullerenes, but they are not the only ones. Other fullerenes include "buckybabies" (spheroid carbon molecules containing fewer than 60 carbon atoms), and "giant fullerenes" (containing several hundreds of carbon atoms).