Buckminster Fuller

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In the US postage stamp commemorating Buckminster Fuller and his contributions to architecture and science, some of his inventions are visible. Most notably, his head is shaped after one of his geodesic domes. Other elements, such as futuristic cars, other craft and radar dishes are also present.

Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller (July 12, 1895 - July 1, 1983) was an American visionary, designer, architect, and inventor. He was also a professor at Southern Illinois University and a prolific writer.


Major design projects

Fuller was most famous for his geodesic domes, which can be seen as part of military radar stations, civic buildings, and exhibition attractions. Their construction is based on extending some basic principles to build simple tensegrity structures (tetrahedron, octahedron, and the closest packing of spheres). Built in this way they are extremely lightweight and stable. The patent for geodesic domes was awarded in 1954, part of Fuller's decades-long efforts to explore nature's constructing principles to find design solutions.

Previously, Fuller had designed and built prototypes of what he hoped would be a safer, aerodynamic Dymaxion Car ("Dymaxion" is contracted from DYnamic MAXimum tensION). To this end he experimented with a radical new approach. He worked with professional colleagues over a period of three years, beginning in 1932. Based on a design idea Fuller had derived from that of aircraft, the three prototype cars were all quite different from anything on the market. For one thing, each of these vehicles had three, not four, wheels - with two (the drive wheels) in front, and the third, rear wheel being the one that was steered. The engine was located in the rear. Both the chassis and the body were original designs. The aerodynamic, somewhat tear-shaped body (which in one of the prototypes was about 18 feet long), was large enough to seat 11 people. It somehow resembled a melding of a light aircraft (albeit without wings) and a Volkswagen van of 1950s vintage. The car was essentially a mini-bus in each of its three trial incarnations, and its concept long predated the Volkswagen "Type-2" Transporter mini-bus that was conceived by Ben Pon in 1947 and first built in 1950.

Despite its length, and due to its three-wheel design, the Dymaxion Car turned on a small radius and parked in a tight space quite easily. The prototypes were efficient in fuel consumption for their day. Fuller poured a great deal of his own money (inherited from his mother) into the project, in addition to the funds put in by one of his professional collaborators. An industrial investor was also keenly interested in the unprecedented concept. Fuller anticipated the car could travel on an open highway safely at up to about 100 miles per hour (160 km/h); however, due to some concept oversights, the prototypes proved to be unruly over the speed of 50 mph (80 km/h), impossible to steer properly. Research came to an end after one of the prototypes was involved in a collision resulting in a fatality.

In 1943, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser asked Fuller to develop a prototype for a smaller car, and Fuller designed a five-seater; the car never went into the development or production stages.

Another of Fuller's ideas was the alternative-projection Dymaxion Map. This was designed to show the Earth's continents with minimum distortion when projected or printed on a flat surface.

Fuller's energy-efficient and low-cost Dymaxion houses garnered much interest, but have never gone into production. Here the term "Dymaxion" is used in effect to signify a "radically strong and light tensegrity structure". One of Fuller's Dymaxion Houses is on display as a permanent exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Designed and developed in the mid 1940s, this prototype is a round structure (though not a dome) shaped something like the flattened "bell" of certain jellyfish. It has several other innovative features, including revolving dresser drawers, and a fine-mist shower that reduces water consumption. According to Fuller biographer Steve Crooks, the house was designed to be delivered in two cylindrical packages, with interior color panels available at local dealers' premises. A circular structure at the top of the house was designed to rotate around a central mast to take advantage of natural winds for cooling and air circulation.

The American Pavilion of , by R. Buckminster Fuller, now the Biosphre, on , . A geodesic dome is a structure developed by Buckminster Fuller in the  in line with his "synergetic" thinking.
The American Pavilion of Expo '67, by R. Buckminster Fuller, now the Biosphre, on le Sainte-Hlne, Montreal. A geodesic dome is a structure developed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s in line with his "synergetic" thinking.

Conceived nearly two decades before, and developed in Wichita,_Kansas, the house was designed to be lightweight and adapted to windy climes. It was to be inexpensive to produce and purchase, and easily assembled. It was to be produced using factories, trained workers, and technologies that had produced World War II aircraft. "Ultramodern"-looking, it was structured of metal and sheathed in polished aluminum, and the basic model enclosed 1000 square feet (90 m²) of floor area. Due to high-level publicity, there were very many orders in the early Post-War years; however, the company that Fuller and others had formed to produce the houses failed due to internal management problems.

Buckminster Fuller made a radical commitment to understanding, discovery, and research. He wanted to be a trailblazer, which is a risky role in any field. His life and his work therefore constituted a kind of noble gamble. For Fuller to be saved from being relegated to "cult-figure" status, his project failures (for whichever reasons) as well as his successes must be acknowledged.

Practical achievements

Certainly, a number of Fuller's projects did not meet success in terms of commitment from industry or acceptance by a broad public. However, many geodesic domes have been built and are in use. According to the Buckminster Fuller Institute (http://www.bfi.org/) Web site, the largest geodesic-dome structures (listed in descending order from largest diameter) are:

  • Fantasy Entertainment Complex: Kyosho Isle, Japan, 710 feet
  • Multi-Purpose Arena: Nagoya, Japan, 614 feet
  • Tacoma Dome: Tacoma, WA, USA, 530 feet
  • Superior Dome: Northern Michigan Univ. Marquette, MI, USA, 525 feet
  • Walkup Skydome: Northern Arizona Univ. Flagstaff, AZ, USA, 502 feet
  • Round Valley High School Stadium: Springerville, AZ USA, 440 feet
  • Former Spruce Goose Hangar: Long Beach, CA, USA, 415 feet
  • Formosa Plastics Storage Facility: Mai Liao, Taiwan, 402 feet
  • Union Tank Car Maintenance Facility: Baton Rouge, LA USA, 384 feet
  • Lehigh Portland Cement Storage Facility: Union Bridge, MD USA, 374 feet

Fuller's development of the dome and his roles as a philosopher and as a gadfly within the design and architectural communities left an important legacy. He introduced a number of concepts, and if every one wasn't entirely new, we can still say that he honed each one well.

Thousands of geodesic domes have been built, but they are not an everyday sight in most places. Contrary to initial hopes, in practice most of the smaller owner-built geodesic structures proved to have drawbacks (discussed in the Wikipedia section on geodesic domes); plus, as a home, many people have been put off by the domes' unconventional appearance.

So, while an envisioned widespread and common adoption of geodesic domes is yet to materialize, Fuller's ideas, teachings, and attitude to life and creativity, in combination, have prodded designers and engineers. What Fuller accomplished, in this sense, was to make professionals and students think "outside the box" - question convention. Fuller was followed (historically) by other designers and architects (examples, Norman Foster - especially his "Armadillo" project - Steve Baer) willing to explore the possibilities of new geometries in the design of buildings, not based on the conventional rectangles. The English writer, playwright, and philosopher John Dryden wrote something quite relevant to the pioneering forays of Fuller still to be brought to full result: "We must beat the iron while it is hot, but we may polish it at leisure."

Philosophy and worldview

Buckminster Fuller was arguably among the most original thinkers of this or any other age. Deploring waste, he explored and advocated a principle that he termed "ephemeralization" - which in essence (according to Stewart Brand) Fuller coined to mean "doing more with less." Wealth can be increased by recycling resources into newer, higher value products whose more technically sophisticated design requires less material. In practice, it has often meant miniaturization, for example, as when table-model calculating machines were succeeded over time by smaller ones, until the calculator of today fits in one's hand. Fuller also introduced synergetics, which explores holistic engineering structures in nature (long before the term synergy became popular).

Fuller was one of the first to propagate a systemic worldview (see 'Operating manual for Spaceship Earth', 'Synergetics') and explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design. Viewing petroleum from the standpoint of its replacement cost out of our current energy "budget" (essential the incoming solar flux), he declared that it had cost nature "over a million dollars" per gallon to produce. From this point of view its use as a transportation fuel by people commuting to work represents a huge net loss compared to their earnings.

Having dedicated himself to advancing the success and fulfillment of humanity, he was deeply concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system, yet was profoundly optimistic about humanity's prospects. Defining wealth in terms of knowledge, as the "technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life", his analysis of the condition of "Spaceship Earth" led him to conclude that at a certain point in the 1970's humanity had crossed an unprecedented watershed.

What might otherwise sound like an article of faith in some spiritual or philosophical system had for Fuller become an objective fact -- that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of key recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had reached a critical level, such that competition for necessities was no longer necessary. Cooperation had became the optimum survival strategy. "Selfishness", he declared, "is unnecessary and...unrationalizable...War is obsolete..."

By considering historical comparisons like the fact that even relatively poor people today are able to travel at speeds and with a degree of comfort which were unobtainable at any price in earlier times, and that illnesses that were fatal even to kings in the past can now be cured with affordable drugs, he concluded that everyone alive today can potentially live like a "billionaire." Hence he described the human race as "four billion billionaires."

Besides important comprehensiveness of thought and his philosophical concepts, Fuller's most lasting insights may be geometric. He claimed that the natural analytic geometry of the universe was based on arrays of tetrahedra. He developed this in several ways, from the close-packing of spheres and the number of compressive or tensile members required to stabilize an object in space. Some deep confirming results were that the strongest possible homogenous truss is cyclically tetrahedral, and all solids constructed of regular polygons, except the icosahedron, have a volume that is an integral number of unit-tetrahedrons.


Fuller was born on July 12 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts, the son of Richard Buckminster Fuller and Caroline Wolcott Andrews. The Fuller family in particular produced noted New England non-conformists. Buckminster Fuller's father died when the boy was 12. Spending his youth on a farm on an island off the coast of Maine, he was a boy with a natural propensity for design and for making things. He often made things from materials he brought home from the woods, and he even sometimes made his own tools. Notably, he experimented with designing a new apparatus for the human-powered propulsion of small boats. Years later he decided that this sort of experience had provided him not only an interest in design, but a habit of being fully familiar and knowledgeable about the materials that his ambitious later projects would require for actualization. Indeed, Fuller earned a machinist’s certification, and he also knew how to fabricate using the press brake, stretch press, and other tools and equipment relied upon in the sheet-metal trade.

Fuller was sent to Milton Academy, in Massachusetts. Afterwards, he began studying at Harvard but was expelled from the university twice: firstly, for entertaining an entire dance troupe; and secondly, for his "irresponsibility and lack of interest." By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment.

Between his sessions at Harvard, he worked for a time in Canada as a mechanic in a textile mill, and later as a laborer working 12 hours a day in the meat-packing industry. He married in 1917, and he also served in the US Navy in World War I. In the Navy he was employed as an aboard-ship radio operator, as an editor of a publication, and as a crash-boat commander. After discharge, he again worked for a period in the meat-packing business, where he acquired management experience. In the early 1920s he and his father-in-law developed the Stockade Building System for producing light-weight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing - though ultimately the company failed.

In 1927 at the age of 32, bankrupt and jobless, living in inferior housing in Chicago, he saw his beloved young daughter Alexandra die of pneumonia in winter. He felt responsible, and this drove him to drink and the verge of suicide. At the last moment he decided instead to embark on "an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity." For the next half-century Buckminster Fuller contributed a wide range of ideas, designs and inventions to the world, particularly in the areas of practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation. He documented his life, philosophy and ideas scrupulously in a daily diary and in 28 publications.

Fuller financed some of his experiments with inherited family money, sometimes augmented by funds invested by his professional collaborators, one example being the Dymaxion Car project.

His international recognition was established by the success of his huge geodesic domes in the 1950s. Fuller taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 1959-1970 (Assistant Professor 1959-68, full Professor in 1968) in the School of Art and Design. Working as a designer, scientist, developer, and writer, for many years he also lectured all over the world on design. In 1965 Fuller inaugurated the World Design Science Decade (1965-1975) at the meeting of the International Union of Architects in Paris. This was (in his own words) devoted to applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity.

Fuller believed human societies would soon be relying mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar- and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of "omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity." He regarded information as "negative entropic".

Fuller was ultimately to be awarded 25 US patents and many honorary doctorates. On January 16, 1970 Fuller received the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects and also received numerous other awards. He died at the age of 88, a guru of the design, architecture, and 'alternative' communities. It is said that while visiting his comatose wife in hospital, he said "She's waiting for me," closed his eyes, and died of a heart attack within 2 hours. His wife died 36 hours later.

Interesting Bits:

Fuller was friends with Boston artist Pietro Pezzati.

He experimented with polyphasic sleep. Fuller is mentioned on the autodidacticism (self-teaching) page.

A new allotrope of carbon (fullerene) and a particular molecule of that allotrope (buckminsterfullerene or buckyballs) have been named after him.

On July 12, 2004 the United States Post Office released a new commemorative stamp honoring Buckminster Fuller on the 50th anniversary of his patent for the geodesic dome and on the occasion of his 109th birthday.


World-around is a term coined by Fuller to replace worldwide. The general belief in a flat Earth died out in the Middle Ages, so using wide is an anachronism when referring to the surface of the Earth — a spheroidal surface has area and encloses a volume, but has no width. Fuller held that unthinking use of obsolete scientific ideas detracts from and misleads intuition. The terms sunsight and sunclipse are other neologisms, according to Allegra Fuller Snyder collectively coined by the Fuller family, replacing sunrise and sunset in order to overturn the geocentric bias of most pre-Copernican celestial mechanics.

Fuller also coined the phrase Spaceship Earth, and coined the term (but did not invent) tensegrity.

Concepts and buildings

List of patents (http://www.bfi.org/patentlist.htm)

His concepts and buildings include:


His publications include:

  • 4-D Timeline(1928)
  • Nine Chains to the Moon (1938)
  • Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization (1962)
  • Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to his Studies (1962, ISBN 0-8093-0137-7)
  • Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969, ISBN 0525474331) - online at http://www.bfi.org/operating_manual.htm
  • Your Private Sky (ISBN 3907044886)
  • Ideas and Integrities (1969, ASIN 0020926308)
  • Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (1969, ASIN 0713901349)
  • Approaching the Benign Environment (1970)
  • I Seem to Be a Verb (1970)
  • No More Secondhand God and Other Writings
  • Intuition (1973, ASIN 0385012446)
  • Buckminster Fuller to Children of Earth (1972)
  • Earth, Inc. (1973)
  • Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (1975, ISBN 0-02-541870-X) - online at http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/synergetics.html
  • Tetrascroll: Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Cosmic Fairy Tale (1975)
  • And It Came to Pass -- Not to Stay (1976, ASIN 0025418106)
  • R. Buckminster Fuller on Education (1979, ASIN 0870232762)
  • Critical Path (1981, ISBN 0-312-17491-8)
  • Synergetics 2: Further Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (1983)
  • Grunch of Giants (1983, ISBN 0-312-35194-1)
  • Inventions: the Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller (1983)
  • Cosmography (1992, posthumous)

Secondary literature

  • Martin Pawley Buckminster Fuller. 1991 (ISBN 080081116X), offers an architectural critic's assessment of Fuller's ideas and projects.
  • A Fuller Explanation (http://www.angelfire.com/mt/marksomers/40.html) by Amy C. Edmondson offers a discussion of his work in geometry and systems.
  • Buckminster Fuller also appears as a character in Paul Whr's book "Das falsche Buch".
  • His former student J. Baldwin wrote BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today 1997 (ISBN 0471198129).

Links (Fuller's design students)

External links


Audio and video

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