Fuller, R. Buckminster, Jr. (1895–1983)
FULLER, R. BUCKMINSTER, JR. (1895–1983)
Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr., best known as the architect of Houston's Astrodome and other geodesic structures, enjoyed a long and varied career as a structural engineer and unconventional humanistic thinker. A colorful and gregarious individual, Fuller was first embraced by government officials for his innovative designs and later cherished by the 1960s counterculture. He patented more than twenty new inventions, authored twenty-five books and dozens of articles, lectured globally on energy issues and the wise use of world resources, and dabbled in both art and science. Never one to be modest, Fuller called himself "an engineer, inventor, mathematician, architect, cartographer, philosopher, poet, cosmologist, comprehensive designer and choreographer." He especially liked the self-description "anticipatory comprehensive design scientist," because he saw himself as a scientist who anticipated human needs and answered them with technology in the most energy-efficient way.
Fuller's "more with less" philosophy first gained the attention of Americans in the 1920s with his "Dymaxion" inventions. Fuller employed this term—a combination of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion"—to describe inventions that do the most with the least expenditure of energy. His Dymaxion house was self-sufficient in that it generated its own power, recycled water, and converted wastes into useable energy. It also featured air conditioning and built-in laborsaving utilities including an automatic laundry machine, a dishwasher that cleaned, dried, and reshelved the dishes, and compressed air and vacuum units. The Dymaxion bathroom was a one-piece aluminum unit containing a "fog gun"—an economical showerhead using a mixture of 90 percent air and 10 percent water. Fuller's Dymaxion car ran on three wheels, had front-wheel drive with rear-wheel steering, and registered a reported forty to fifty miles per gallon in 1933. None of these projects were mass-produced, but his futuristic designs, and later his geodesic buildings, World Game workshops, and startling questions and proposals about natural resources and human survival stimulated imaginations and encouraged others to explore ways to create a more energy-efficient environment.
Born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1895 to Richard and Caroline Fuller, Bucky, as most knew him, spent his summers at the family retreat, Bear Island, in Penobscot Bay, Maine. As Fuller remembered it, his interest in building better "instruments, tools, or other devices" to increase the "technical advantage of man over environmental circumstance" began there. One of his tasks each day as a young boy was to row a boat four miles round trip to another island for the mail. To expedite this trip, he constructed his "first teleologic design invention," a "mechanical jelly fish." Noting the structure of the jellyfish and attending to its movement through the water, Fuller copied nature and produced a boat of greater speed and ease. Observing natural phenomena remained his lifelong source of inspiration which was not surprising, given that Fuller was the grandnephew of transcendentalist Margaret Fuller.
Following his Brahmin family's tradition, Fuller went to Harvard, but instead of graduating as a lawyer or Unitarian minister as his ancestors had, he was expelled twice for cutting classes, failing grades, and raucous living. He never did gain a bachelor's degree. Instead, Fuller tutored himself in the arts and sciences, and the Navy and apprenticeships at a cotton mill machinery plant and a meat-packing factory provided him with a practical education. Eventually, Fuller garnered multiple honorary doctorates and awards, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before his death in 1983.
In 1917, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, the daughter of the respected New York architect James M. Hewlett. A year later their daughter Alexandra was born, only to die a few years later from infantile paralysis. From 1922 to 1926, Fuller and his father-in-law founded and ran the Stockade Building System that produced lightweight construction materials. Fuller failed miserably at the business and, in 1927, stung by the death of his daughter, years of carousing, and financial failure, he considered suicide. Impoverished and living in the gangster region of Chicago with his wife and newborn daughter, Allegra, Fuller walked to the shore of Lake Michigan with the intent of throwing himself in. Instead, he had a revelation: "You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe. . . apply yourself to converting all your experience to the highest advantage of others." At this point, Fuller made it his ambition to design "tools for living," believing that human life would improve if the built environment was transformed.
Fuller approached his mission both philosophically and practically. He explored mathematics in search of "nature's coordinate system" and invented his own "energetic-synergetic geometry" as his expression of the underlying order he saw. He also studied philosophy and physics for understanding of time and motion. But his philosophical musings always had a practical bent. For example, Fuller, taken with Albert Einstein's theories about time and motion, sought to employ physics in his design initiatives.
Fuller devoted his early years to the problem of building energy-efficient and affordable housing, but his projects and ideas were largely confined to a few students in architectural schools, executives of small corporations, and readers of Shelter and Fortune magazines. His most successful enterprise was the manufacture of Dymaxion Deployment Units for use by the Army in World War II. Fuller tried to convert these military units into civilian housing, but failed to raise production funds.
In 1949, Fuller's luck changed with the construction of his first geodesic dome at Black Mountain College. Motivated by a desire to create an energy-efficient building that covered a large space with a minimal amount of material, Fuller fashioned a sphere-shaped structure out of triangular pyramids. He joined these tetrahedrons together by pulling them tight in tension rather than relying on compression to raise the dome. In doing so, Fuller reconceptualized dome engineering and created a practical, efficient, cost-effective, strong, and easy-to-transport-and-assemble building.
Several hundred thousand geodesics function today worldwide as auditoriums, aviaries, banks, churches, exposition halls, greenhouses, homes, industrial plants, military sheds, planetariums, playground equipment, and sports arenas. Some of these geodesics, including the clear, thin-skinned "Skybreak" and "Garden-of-Eden" structures, were experiments in using renewable energy sources. These transparent spheres, primarily functioning as greenhouses or as experimental biodomes by environmentalists before the much-publicized Biosphere projects, relied on solar power to regulate temperature. Fuller also had more fantastic ideas to reduce energy losses in summer cooling and winter heating: in 1950, for example, he proposed building a dome over Manhattan to regulate the environment.
Fuller's vision was more expansive than creating better shelter systems, however. His scope was global and his ideals utopian. At the same time that he was creating "machines for living," he was surveying Earth's resources, designing maps, and plotting strategies for an equitable distribution of goods and services. In 1927 Fuller started his "Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs." In the 1930s he began his Dymaxion map projects to gain a global perspective, and by the 1960s, in the heart of the Cold War, Fuller was busy devising ways to ensure the survival of the earth.
For Earth to continue functioning for the maximum gain of people everywhere, Fuller believed that resources must be used wisely and shared equally. He scorned reliance on fossil fuels and encouraged the development of renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, and water power. To convey his ideas, Fuller employed the metaphor of Earth as a spaceship. This spacecraft, he explained in his best-selling book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, was finite and in need of careful management. With limited materials on board, "earthians" must work out an equitable and just distribution to keep the spaceship operating smoothly and efficiently.
Intent upon channeling human energy and resources into projects for "livingry," as opposed to "weaponry," Fuller participated in cultural exchanges between the Soviet Union and the United States, worked on United Nations projects, and traveled the world to communicate his vision. He conducted marathon "thinking-aloud" sessions before large audiences, taking on a cult status for some and the role of crackpot for others. He criticized political solutions to world problems and promoted technological design to reallocate wealth, labor, and resources.
The culmination of these thoughts can be found in Fuller's strategic global planning organization, the World Game Institute. Counter to military war games, World Game was both a tool for disseminating information and an exercise to engage others in problem-solving. Through a set of simulated exercises, participants used Fuller's inventory of resources, synergetic geometry, and Dymaxion maps to plot strategies to "make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, and without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone." Begun in small college classrooms in the 1960s, World Game attracted a dedicated following. In the 1990s, the World Game Organization established itself on the Internet to facilitate innovative thinking about world resources.
Fuller's lifelong engagement in global energy issues and his lasting contributions in engineering design make him a noteworthy study in twentieth century debates on energy supply and use. Fuller believed that world problems of war, poverty, and energy allocation could be eradicated by cooperation between nations and through technological innovation. His optimistic celebration of technology pitted him against individuals such as historian Lewis Mumford who questioned the salutary effects of technology, and placed him at odds with Paul Ehrlich and other environmentalists who believed that Earth's resources could not support the world's growing population. Fuller, a modernist at heart, maintained that the trouble was in distribution, and that continual employment of technology would not destroy but save the planet.
Linda Sargent Wood
Baldwin, J. (1996). BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today. New York: Wiley.
Fuller, R. B. (1963). Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure, edited by R. W. Marks. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Fuller, R. B. (1963). Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Fuller, R. B. (1969). Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity. New York: Bantam.
Fuller, R. B. (1975). Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Gabel, M. (1975). Energy Earth and Everyone: A Global Energy Strategy for Spaceship Earth. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books.
McHale, J. (1962). R. Buckminster Fuller. New York: George Brazillier, Inc.
Sieden, L. S. (1989). Buckminster Fuller's Universe: An Appreciation. New York: Plenum Press.