Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was one of the great American creative thinkers of the 20th century.
Philosopher, forecaster, designer, poet, inventor, and advocate of alternative energy, Fuller is probably best known as the originator of the geodesic dome, but his theories and innovations engaged fields ranging from mathematics, engineering, and environmental science to literature, architecture, and visual art.
Fuller was renowned for his comprehensive perspective on the world’s problems. For more than five decades, he developed pioneering solutions that reflected his commitment to the potential of innovative design to create technology that does “more with less” and thereby improves human lives
Many years before the first ecologist organisations were founded or the word “sustainability” was coined, Fuller designed the first self-sufficient buildings and invented low-fuel consumption aerodynamic cars which resembled a drop of water, capable of carrying up to twelve people.
Fuller sought to produce comprehensive anticipatory design solutions that would benefit the largest segment of humanity while consuming the fewest resources.
Fuller was one of the great transdisciplinary thinkers and made no distinction between these spheres as discrete areas of investigation. He devoted much of his life to closing the gap between the sciences and the humanities, a schism he felt prevented a comprehensive view of the world. He believed in the significant interconnectedness of all things and concluded that certain basic structures and systems underlie everything in our world.
Today his prophetic concepts are a touchstone for discussions of issues including environmental conservation, the manufacture and distribution of housing, and global organization of information.
Starting as he did from the universe and ending up with visual-spatial models with which to ponder universal philosophical problems in the here and now, it is not surprising that Fuller has had a tremendous impact on the visual arts and architecture.
His sensibilities and modes of working were deeply aesthetic and many of his closest friends and supporters were artists. Fuller’s broad curiosity covered nature’s structures and a sense of urgency about economies, ecologies, and their interactions.
In 1951 Fuller drew attention to the ecological issues of today when he referred to ‘spaceship earth’ and the fragility of the planet, as such his work and observations are even more important now than they were in his lifetime.
About R. Buckminster Fuller, 1895 – 1983
Richard Buckminster Fuller Jr. was born on July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts, to an old New England family noted for producing strong individualists inclined toward activism and public service. His great-aunt was the transcendentalist feminist writer Margaret Fuller, co-founder, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, of the magazine The Dial.
“Bucky,” as he came to be called, developed an early understanding of nature during family excursions to Bear Island, Maine, where he also became familiar with the principles of boat maintenance and construction. Fuller showed an early propensity for design and invention. At a young age, he experimented with designing a new apparatus for human propulsion of small boats.
He attended Milton Academy, in Massachusetts, and entered Harvard in 1913. Bucky was among the 5th generation of male Fullers to be admitted to Harvard – but the first not to graduate. He was expelled after excessively socializing and missing his midterm exams.
Fuller returned to Harvard in the autumn of 1915 but was again dismissed.
Between periods at Harvard, he was sent to Canada by his family to work as a mechanic in a cousin’s textile mill, and later as a laborer in the meat-packing industry. During this time he took a strong interest in machinery and learned to modify and improve the manufacturing equipment
He married Anne Hewlett in 1917.
From 1917 – 1919, Fuller served in the U.S. Naval Reserves and the U.S. Navy in World War I as a shipboard radio operator, an editor for a Navy publication, and a crash-boat commander. He demonstrated his aptitude for engineering by inventing a winch for rescue boats that could remove downed airplanes from the water in time to save the lives of pilots.
As a result of the invention, Fuller was nominated to receive officer training at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he further developed his ability to study problems comprehensively.
In the early 1920s he and his father-in-law developed the Stockade Building System for producing lightweight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing. In 1926, when Fuller’s father-in-law, James Monroe Hewlett, developed a new method of producing reinforced concrete buildings, he and Fuller patented the invention, earning Fuller the first of his 25 patents.
Fuller’s four year old daughter died in 1922 from Polio and Spinal Meningitis. He felt that her death was due to the inadequate housing conditions he found himself in Chicago at the time . He set himself the goal of finding solutions to universal problems such as poor housing conditions.
In 1927, after the construction company failed, Fuller was unemployed and contemplated suicide, but he had a remarkable realization.
Deciding that he had no right to end his own life, he concluded that he had a responsibility to use his experiences and intellect in the service of others. As a consequence, he spent nearly two years as a recluse, deep in contemplation about the universe and how he could best contribute to humanity. He embarked upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
Fuller’s ambition was to create a ‘design science’ that would be able to create the best solutions to problems with minimal consumption of energy and materials.
The word “Dymaxion” was coined by a Department store advertising company and trademarked in Fuller’s name.
It was based on the words “dynamic” & “maximum efficiency” and became a part of the name of many of Fuller’s subsequent inventions.
The word became synonymous with his design philosophy of “doing more with less” , a phrase he later coined to reflect his growing recognition of the accelerating global trend toward the development of more efficient technology
Fuller was neither architect nor engineer, but a philosopher and preacher, a man more in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. His houses and cars were arguments, not products. He made up the word Dymaxion and used it as a personal brand.
In 1927, the philosopher, inventor, and designer Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) advanced the argument that conventional house design and construction was entirely inadequate.
One of Fuller’s lifelong interests was using technology to revolutionize construction and improve human housing.
Buckminster Fuller believed that a house could be factory produced as systematically as a good car, and that it could change the way people live. He designed mechanical systems that vastly reduced resource use, anticipating the sustainability movement by decades
Tetrahedronal City (Triton City) – a floating city designed for San Francisco bay. Earthquake proof. 2,500 meters tall, contained 5,000 apartments. Broke the components of a city into different floating units.
Having already invented an easily built, air-delivered, modular apartment (Triton) building, he designed the Dymaxion House, an inexpensive, mass-produced, pre fabricated home that could be airlifted to its location.
The Dymaxion House was suspended on a central core or mast, which contained the building’s utility services, including an elevator, laundry, air conditioning system as well as the plumbing and wiring. The roof and floor were both suspended by cables from the top of the mast.
Originally called the 4D House, it was later renamed by a department store that displayed a model of the house. Only two prototypes of the Dymaxion House were built, neither was ever inhabited.
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan painstakingly restored the sole surviving example ( Dymaxion House no # 2 ) and began exhibiting it in 2001.
He collaborated with the copper company Phelps Dodge Corporation on prototypes of the Dymaxion Bathroom, an easily installed, lightweight, four-part unit Fuller envisioned incorporating into Dymaxion Houses.
In 1939, his Dymaxion House model and Dymaxion Bathroom were included in Art in Our Time, an exhibition celebrating the opening of the new building of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Wichita House is the epitome of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion research. He was always someone who wanted to think literally outside the box. So unlike so many architects in the 1920s who were creating white boxes for living, Fuller created a house of a completely unprecedented form.
The Wichita house or “dwelling machine” (1944-46) received more positive critical response. Fuller had developed the first mass produced, prefabricated plastic and duralumin house.
The house is held aloft on a mast. One can think here of a sailboat from which everything is suspended so that the house really becomes something like the platform or the bridge or the sail of a sailboat—something that is held aloft by one, single structural mast, which also provides all the services for the building, the plumbing, but also systems for ventilation, so that the house would have a form of natural air conditioning through this mast and everything was thought out that the house might work in different climatic zones.
The Wichita House would feature a series of appliances of a type that weren’t available on the market imagining that one could press a switch and a window would open and your sweaters would go by on display and you would pick the one that you wanted to wear for that day. And then they could go back into sort of deep storage so that the closet becomes a mechanized instrument
The Beech Aircraft Company planned to produce 50 000 units a year and sell them for $ USD 6,500. The company received 38,000 orders after the press launch, but Fuller was not prepared to start production until he was completely happy with the design.
Beech became frustrated and with all the delays the project was finally shelved. Beech decided not to produce believing that the public was still not prepared to inhabit such a mechanistic space
Dymaxion Deployment Units (DDUs)
Mass-produced houses based on circular grain bins. While DDUs never became popular for civilian housing, they were used during World War II to shelter radar crews in remote locations with severe climates, and they led to additional round housing designs by Fuller.
Fuller saw his second Dymaxion House as the answer to the U. S. Government’s increased need for fast, inexpensive and collapsible housing for the mobilizing defense industry as the country prepared to enter World War II. Although he had written on the Mongolian yurt, Fuller claimed that a trip through the Illinois countryside inspired his use of a metal grain bin in Dymaxion II.
An experimental model was erected in Washington, where those who lived in it “vouched for its qualities of comfort and living efficiency.” However, with canvas curtain partitions, a lack of privacy was a problem. Metal shortages ultimately restricted the government’s purchase of Dymaxion II to a few models used by the military for special uses in the field.
Fuller sketched the Dymaxion vehicle in 1927 under the name 4D transport, part aircraft, part automobile, with wings that inflated at speed. Fuller hoped that his three-wheeled Dymaxion would fly, allowing Americans to leave the highway vertically and touch down at lightweight aluminium homes, scattered wherever they fancied by a fleet of Zeppelins
In 1932, Fuller asked the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, who was also a drinking buddy, to prepare sketches and plastic models. They show a car shaped like an elongated teardrop with a rear third wheel that would lift off the ground and a tail fin that unfolded.
Fuller found an angel to invest in the car. Philip Pearson, a stockbroker who had gotten out of the market just before the 1929 crash, put up enough money to get the project off the ground. Fuller promised the car would have a top speed of more than 120 miles an hour and gas mileage of 30 miles a gallon.
He took over the closed Locomobile factory in Bridgeport, Conn., and hired Starling Burgess, a builder of racing yachts, to build the Dymaxion. Fuller opened the plant in March 1933.
Despite Fuller’s talk of borrowing construction methods from the aircraft industry, Burgess built the car using many of the nautical methods applied to a racing boat. The chassis was aircraft-grade steel, but the body was an ash wood frame with aluminum tacked to its sides and a roof of taut, painted canvas. The crude suspension was made up of a Ford beam axle and leaf springs turned sideways. The tail was omitted.
The 1933 Dymaxion, a streamlined pod on three wheels, is one of the lovable oddballs in automotive history.
By July, the first car was rolled out to an eager crowd It was sold to Gulf Oil, which showed it off at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago.
Fuller, a short man who often wore a white suit, welcomed visitors to the car during the second year of the exposition in Chicago in 1934. Leopold Stokowski , the conductor, bought a Dymaxion and it ended up promoting war bond sales in Brooklyn.
But in October, that car turned over, killing its driver, Francis T. Turner, a professional, and injuring two would-be investors. The fatal collision scared investors and brought continued development to an abrupt end.
An investigation cleared the Dymaxion of responsibility.
Because its steering wheel was connected to a single back wheel, the car could spin on a very narrow axis. It was also the first vehicle to use air-conditioning, and gas mileage estimates range from 30 to 50 miles per gallon.
All three wheels turned, making the car Dymaxion terrific for parallel parking, but its V-shaped bottom tended to make it lift off the pavement at speed. Apparently when the vehicle reached approximately 90 m.p.h., its rear wheel lifted from the ground — as it was supposed to in the original auto-airplane conception. Unfortunately, it caused the Dymaxion to skip about erratically. There are no records showing the highest speed the car ever reached.
Fuller concentrated on the car’s handling. “You couldn’t skid her,” he said. Older cars steered “like wheelbarrows,” he charged.
Fuller used an inheritance from his mother to build a third, final car.
The Dymaxion was meant to be phase one of a social revolution, fuelled by the latest technology, but only three were ever built.
Only one of the three Dymaxion prototypes is still in existence.
No # 1 repaired after its’ fatal crash, caught fire in a Washington storage garage. No # 3 was turned into scrap; only No # 2 survived.
No # 2 now sits in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. The car in the Whitney Museum Exhibition ( No # 2 ), may have been used as a chicken coop before being restored.
As with many of Fuller’s ideas and inventions, the Dymaxion car has appeal to a generation seeking radical breakthroughs to save energy and materials. Fuller said the Dymaxion was not even really a car.
“I knew everyone would call it a car,” he said, but really it was “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device.” The jets he wanted had not been invented in 1933, he said, so he simply used a Ford V-8 instead.
Such compromises rarely bothered Fuller, who always saw the Dymaxion, as he saw much of the world, as a kind of provisional prototype, a mere sketch, of the glorious, eventual future. The Dymaxion appealed to the era of the Depression, when people dreamed of radical new technological solutions to solve overwhelming problems.
The architectural firm of Norman Foster, the Pritzker Prize winner who once worked with Fuller, has now built a replica Dymaxion ( No #4).
“The Dymaxion had the same engine and transmission as the Ford Sedan of the time,” said Foster “However, at three times the volume, with half the fuel consumption and a 50% increase in top speed, it not only did more with less, but anticipated the ‘people mover’ of several decades later.”
Fuller’s magnificently optimistic fusion of architecture and invention never did fly – either from showrooms or in skies above America
In 1946, Fuller received a patent for another breakthrough invention: the Dymaxion Map, which depicted the entire planet on a single flat map without visible distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the continents. He found a way to stay true to proportions in replicating a spherical map (the globe) on a flat, two-dimensional surface.
The map, which can be reconfigured to put different regions at the center, was intended to help humanity better address the world’s problems by prompting people to think comprehensively about the planet.
Beginning In the late 1960s, Fuller was especially involved in creating World Game®, a large-scale simulation and series of workshops he designed that used a large-scale Dymaxion Map to help humanity better understand, benefit from, and more efficiently utilize the world’s resources.
In 1964, Buckminster Fuller advanced the idea of a “World Peace Game”, or “World Game”, in which participants would do simulations of global trends, and propose alternate scenarios of rapid economic success for everyone on earth, without human exploitation or environmental damage.
In its most grandiose formulation, there was to be a giant computerized globe flattening to a football-field sized Dymaxion map, to display the resources and results. (This was Fuller’s proposal for the U.S. pavillion at Expo 67 in Montreal; but the U.S. only accepted Fuller’s now famous geodesic sphere, to house a much more trivial exhibit.)
Small pilot projects of the World Game were launched in 1969 in New York, then at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
Big Map. World Game edition of the Dymaxion Map, 70 feet by 35 feet at one to two million scale.
Surface data from U.S. Air Force navigation charts. Large and small rivers, lakes, major railroads, highways, cities, towns over 5,000 people, elevation, airports, etc. are displayed in three colors. One inch equals 32 miles.
At the 1:2,000,000 scale, the world’s jet airplanes fly at only 1/4 of an inch above the surface of the 70 foot long world map. The space shuttle goes into orbit at ankle height. The highest and lowest points on Earth — Mt. Everest and the deepest ocean trenches — are only 3/16 of an inch above or below the paper surface of this map.
Standing on the map the world appears as it would if you were 2,000 miles above the surface.
At this scale, the moon is at the height of a 70 story building, and the sun is 25 miles away.
Walking about on this giant map, as Buckminster Fuller says, “human beings can sense their hometown, not only in relationship to the whole undistorted display of the one whole world, but in scale with the surrounding celestial bodies. People can feel themselves in an entirely new cosmic orientation.”
After 1947, one invention dominated Fuller’s life and career: the Geodesic Dome.
Lightweight, cost-effective, and easy to assemble, geodesic domes enclose more space without intrusive supporting columns than any other structure; they efficiently distribute stress; and they can withstand extremely harsh conditions.
Based on Fuller’s “synergetic geometry,” his lifelong exploration of nature’s principles of design, the geodesic dome was the result of his revolutionary discoveries about balancing compression and tension forces in building.
Fuller became famous for creating the Geodesic Dome. The Geodesic system consists of dividing a sphere into equal triangles so that the surface structure of a dome could be more easily made.
The word Geodesic comes from a Latin word meaning ‘Earth dividing’
The similarity of the triangles makes the domes easier to construct and benefits by being structurally strong. The overall strength is distributed evenly. Fuller insisted upon the minimal use of materials. Therefore the construction of the domes made them lightweight, transportable and easily assembled.
If you think about eggshell, it is a very weak material but when arranged in the shape of an egg it becomes very strong. If you compare the egg to a matchbox, you will notice that the matchbox is made of thicker material. It is in the form of a cube, which distorts and bends far more easily than a dome or spherical shape.
Buckminster Fuller invented the Geodesic Dome in the late 1940s to demonstrate some ideas he had about housing and ‘energetic-synergetic geometry‘ (two types of structures or geometry working together to create a new stronger structure), which he had developed during the Second World War.
The form appealed to the innovative engineer because geodesic domes are extremely strong for their weight, their “omnitriangular” surface provides a stable structure, and because a sphere encloses the most volume for the least surface area. He had hopes that the domes, like both versions of his Dymaxion House, would address the post-World War II housing crisis.
Fuller examined all sorts of man-made and natural structures. He was particularly interested in things that were made up of many smaller but similar parts, each relying on the other to make a whole. Fuller examined as part of his research, fishing nets, beehives and many other examples of what he called networks.
Fuller used new materials such as the ones used to make aeroplanes to build a new a type of building that no one had ever seen before. This was the geodesic dome.
The Geodesic dome has a high strength to weight ratio because it is made of lightweight materials but is made in such a way that the stress is evenly distributed to all members in the structure. The design offered a way of producing ecologically efficient housing for the mass market.
His exposure to artists increased considerably when he took a teaching position at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught for two summers, in 1948 and 1949, encountering Josef and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Richard Lippold, and Kenneth Snelson.
The first summer, Fuller played the lead in Erik Satie’s play The Ruse of Medusa, organized by Cage and directed by Arthur Penn; it featured Cunningham and Elaine de Kooning, and employed props and sets by Ruth Asawa and the de Koonings.
It was there, at Black Mountain College, with the support of a group of professors and students, that Fuller began work on the Geodesic Dome project. Geodesics Inc. was set up in 1949 to develop the concept.
Richard Buckminster Fuller designed and made a building with one of the largest spans in the world. This means that it has no columns or wall supports apart from the outside wall is the geodesic dome. It had a clear span of 384 feet. The domes were so large that the original intentions were for them to be positioned by Zeppelin but on most occasions they were set down by helicopter.
Richard Buckminster Fuller had an ambitious idea to place a geodesic dome two miles in diameter and one mile high at its centre over New York City. The most important reason for the dome as far as he was concerned was that it would alter the weather over the city. The dome would be enormous and inside the dome would be warmer that outside. It would never rain or snow.
The image of the geodesic dome is as futuristic a design in our modern society as it was when Fuller first created it. The concept of the geodesic dome is used in films and computer games today.
Fuller applied for a patent for the geodesic dome in 1951 and received it in 1954.
In 1953 he designed his first commercial dome for the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. The U.S. military became one of his biggest clients, using lightweight domes to cover radar stations at installations around the Arctic Circle.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, many people looking for alternative, creative and affordable housing turned to geodesic domes. Using pre-assembled panels, the dome builder, with help from friends, could often put up a home in one day.
According to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, today there are more than 300,000 geodesic domes around the world, ranging from shelters in California and Africa to radar stations in remote locations, as well as geodesic structures on countless chidren’s playgrounds.
Fly’s Eyes Domes
Patented in 1965, Fuller created two prototypes of this structure; a 24 foot and a 50 foot dome.
Fuller wrotes in his seminal book, Critical Path that “the Fly’s Eye domes are designed as part of a ‘livingry’ service. The basic hardware components will produce a beautiful, fully equipped air-deliverable house that weighs and costs about as much as a good automobile. Not only will it be highly efficient in its use of energy and materials, it also will be capable of harvesting incoming light and wind energies.”
The 24 foot Fly’s Eye dome is a convergence of Fuller’s most advanced thinking with regard to synergetic geometry, advanced structural systems, and the very contemporary notion of a dwelling machine.”
Goetz Composites, fabricators of some of the most successful race boats in the world including three of today’s most high profile yachts as well as ten America’s Cup racing yachts has just completed an historic restoration at Bristol, Rhode Island, USA – of one of Buckminster Fuller’s most iconic structures, the 24 foot Fly’s Eye Dome.
The 24 foot Fly’s Eye dome has been restored in preparation for installation during Art Basel, Miami Beach in December 2011, and for inclusion in the contemporary art and design collection of Craig Robins, CEO and President of Dacra, Miami.
Fuller was the first person to coin the phrase ‘Spaceship Earth’.
A precursor to current environmentalism, Buckminster Fuller addressed issues that are vital for our society today. His projects reflected a deep concern about the fragility of our planet which, from 1951 onwards, he referred to as Spaceship Earth.
He strongly believed that the creative abilities of mankind was unlimited and that the use and development of technology and design-led solutions would create a positive future.
Fuller argued that the Earth should be understood as a vehicle that transports us through space. He explained that the ship’s resources were limited and, therefore, it was fundamental to rationalise their consumption and search for sustainable transport and structures.
“His work, along with his observations, are actually more important now than they were during his lifetime”, explained Norman Foster.
He dedicated his work to making our planet more manageable, directing it in a sustainable way, taking on a leadership role in defence of the environment and concern for a democratic architecture within everyone’s reach. The bulk of these ideas, didactically spread, were developed in the 1920s and gradually disseminated through society. Today they are fully valid.
Throughout his life, Fuller found numerous outlets for his innovative ideas.
During the early 1930s he published Shelter magazine, and from 1938 until 1940 he was science and technology consultant for Fortune magazine. he participated in museum exhibitions, and developed friendships with a number of artists, including Isamu Noguchi.
During the 1940s he began to teach and lecture at universities, including Harvard and MIT, and in the late 1950s he became a professor at Southern Illinois University (SIU), where he and his wife lived in a geodesic dome when he was in residence.
The growing recognition that Fuller enjoyed in the 1950s reached a crescendo in the mid-1960s.
Throughout this period and for the rest of his life, he contributed a wide range of ideas, designs, and inventions to the world, particularly in the areas of practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation.
Fuller wrote several books in short succession and was the subject of extensive press coverage, including a 1964 Time cover story and a profile by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker, in 1966. He taught and lectured at hundreds of universities, contributed writings to numerous publications and had his work exhibited at museums and galleries throughout the world.
In 1972 he was named World Fellow in Residence to a consortium of universities in Philadelphia, including the University of Pennsylvania. He retained his connection with both SIU and the University of Pennsylvania until his death.
He was the author of nearly 30 books, and he spent much of his life traveling the world lecturing and discussing his ideas with thousands of audiences. Some of Fuller’s many honors highlight his eclectic reputation: For example, because he sometimes expressed complex ideas in verse to make them more understandable, in 1961 he received a one-year appointment to the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard.
After being spurned early in his career by the architecture and construction establishments, Fuller was later recognized with many major architectural, scientific, industrial, and design awards, both in the United States and abroad, and he received 47 honorary doctorate degrees.
He was awarded 28 U.S. patents and many honorary doctorates and received the Medal of Freedom, as well as the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects, among numerous other awards.
In 1983, shortly before his death, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, with a citation acknowledging that his “contributions as a geometrician, educator, and architect-designer are benchmarks of accomplishment in their fields.”
R Buckminster Fuller died in Los Angeles on July 1, 1983, at the age of 87.
After Fullers death, when chemists discovered that the atoms of a recently discovered carbon molecule were arrayed in a structure similar to a geodesic dome, they named the molecule “buckminsterfullerene.”
About The Buckminster Fuller Institute
Founded in 1983 The Buckminster Fuller Institute is dedicated to accelerating the development and deployment of solutions which radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. We aim to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity.
Our programs combine unique insight into global trends and local needs with a comprehensive approach to design. We encourage participants to conceive and apply transformative strategies based on a crucial synthesis of whole systems thinking, Nature’s fundamental principles, and an ethically driven worldview.
By facilitating convergence across the disciplines of art, science, design and technology, our work extends the profoundly relevant legacy of R. Buckminster Fuller. In this way, we strive to catalyze the collective intelligence required to fully address the unprecedented challenges before us.