Fuller, Richard Buckminster, Jr.

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Poet, philosopher, writer, designer, engineer, teacher, futurist, cartographer, geometrician, inventor, and businessman were all terms applied to Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr., (18951983) a nonconformist known for unorthodox ideas about the world. Fuller was an original thinker. He was an environmentalist decades before it became popular.

Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr. was born July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts. He was well educated as a young man and entered Harvard University, where he was twice expelled. Fuller never finished college. His family were well-known Nonconformists, and his great aunt Margaret was cofounder of The Dial, a publication of the Transcendentalist movement.

Fuller served in the U.S. Navy during World War I (19141918), commanding a crash-boat flotilla. He invented special lifesaving equipment while in the Navy, and, as a reward, was granted an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller married Anne Hewlett in 1917. The daughter of a well-known architect and muralist, Anne was herself an inventor who created a modular construction system using compressed fiber block. After the war Fuller was employed briefly at Armour and Company, then went to work for his father-in-law in 1922. This venture involved the formation of Stockade Building System, which utilized the building material invented by his wife. The experience of building and dealing with building tradesmen convinced Fuller there were better ways to use Earth's resources.

In 1922 tragedy came to the Fuller family when their first daughter, Alexandra, died at the age of four from successive bouts with influenza, polio, and spinal meningitis. Fuller concluded that his daughter's death was the fault of inadequacies in the environment in which she lived. He believed that this environment could be controlled through comprehensive anticipatory design. Fuller set out to devote his life to understanding this holistic approach to designing and building strategies that would maximize the efficient use of the planet's resources.

Fuller's comprehensive design theory blended mathematics, engineering, and philosophy. He invented a series of products, which he labeled "Dymaxion" for dynamic and maximum inventions. He built a house in 1927 that was spacious, comfortable, and portable. It was financially inexpensive and was physically supported by a single column at the center of the home. In 1933 Fuller's Dymaxion automobile was developed to achieve a speed of 120 miles per hour and a gas mileage of 30 to 40 miles-per-gallon. It was able to traverse rough terrain and could turn 180 degrees and park within the length of the vehicle itself. The Dymaxion Corporation, founded by Fuller, was unable to achieve commercial success with his inventions, and after two false starts, it was finally disbanded at the beginning of World War II (19391945).

Fuller's most famous invention, however, was the geodesic dome. The dome was constructed using what Fuller called "Energetic-Synergetic geometry." In this structure, the dome is constructed by many series of tetrahedrons (a pyramid shaped cube) interlocked with octahedrons (eight-sided shapes). This building scheme provided for the most economical means of enclosing a space, and it also served to disperse architectural stresses in the most efficient way ever conceived. Geodesic domes were built all over the world for many purposes, from commercial applications to remote military enclosures in hostile environments. The largest geodesic dome was built in 1958 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 384 feet in diameter and 116 feet (about 10 stories) in height.

In addition, Fuller developed a system of cartography that allowed for the printing of land masses without distortion, die-stamped prefabricated bathrooms, underwater farms enclosed within geodesic domes, and floating cities. Fuller never saw himself as an inventor, however, and as he grew older, he spent more time philosophizing, writing, and teaching. What Fuller saw was a world of limited resources in materials and energy, but with unlimited potential for knowledge to make use of those resources. He believed in making comprehensive, long range technological and economic plans for man's place in the universe. Fuller lectured and wrote extensively on this subject. He coined the phrase "a passenger on spaceship Earth" to describe our place on this planet and in the universe.

Fuller was never particularly successful in business, although he tried several times to succeed with his building companies and Dymaxion. He did flourish in the academic environment, teaching at various times at Yale, Cornell, and Princeton Universities, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also gained a lifetime appointment to a professorship at Southern Illinois University in 1968. Fuller was a prolific writer. In Nine Chains to the Moon (1938), Fuller proposed a general strategy for maximizing the social applications of Earth's energy resources. He continued to refine these ideas in No More Secondhand God (1962), Utopia or Oblivion (1969), Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969), Earth, Inc. (1973), and Critical Path (1981).

Fuller was internationally recognized for his work. Queen Elizabeth II awarded Fuller the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, and he also received the 1968 Gold Medal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1979 he was granted membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Richard Buckminster Fuller was the darling of the youth culture, the environmentalists, and the futurists of the 1960s and 1970s. His nonconformist views were provocative to those who were looking for different answers to old problems. Fuller died in Los Angeles on July 1, 1983.


Baldwin, J. BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today. New York: John Wiley, 1996.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994, s.v. "Fuller, Jr., Richard Buckminster."

Garraty, John A. and Jerome L. Sternstein. Encyclopedia of American Biography. 2d ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1996, s.v. "Fuller, Jr., Richard Buckminster."

Snyder, Robert. R. Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1984, s.v. "Fuller, Jr., Richard Buckminster."

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