Richard Buckminster Fuller

views updated May 29 2018

Richard Buckminster Fuller

Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), American architect and engineer, was in a broad sense a product designer who understood architecture as well as the engineering sciences in relation to mass production and in association with the idea of total environment.

R. Buckminster Fuller was best known for his work on the Dymaxion House, Dymaxion Bathroom, and Dymaxion Car and as the inventor of the geodesic dome—as a means of attaining maximum space related to environment with minimal use of raw materials. "My philosophy," he wrote in No More Secondhand Gods, "requires of me that I convert not only my own experiences but whatever I can learn of other men's experiences into statements of evolutionary trending and concomitantly defined problem challenges and responses. My philosophy further requires that I at least attempt to solve the problems by inanimate invention." He also described himself as an "explorer in comprehensive anticipation design."

Fuller was born July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts, and attended Milton Academy. Even at an early age he was a nonconformist, and in 1913 he rejected formal education at Harvard, the college that had nurtured four generations of Fullers. During World War I he was commissioned in the U.S. Navy, where he had an opportunity to indulge his creative imagination; he designed a seaplane rescue mast and boom.

Dymaxion Concept

In peacetime Fuller's energies were channeled into the Stockade Building System, which failed because of ignorant contractors, inflexible building codes, and financial opposition. This failure, as well as the death of his daughter of rheumatic fever, forced him into an intense period of work, resulting in 1927 in the Dymaxion House. (The word Dymaxion is a compounding of the words "dynamism" and "maximum.") Circular in plan to prevent heat loss and with a tiny heating unit and air-conditioning unit, the house, 50 feet in diameter, weighed 6,000 pounds. It would have cost approximately $6,500 and could have been assembled from a 250-cubic-foot package transported anywhere. The cost of development would have been about $100 million.

In 1933 Fuller followed this with the three-wheel, front-wheel-drive Dymaxion Car. It was built like an airplane body, was air-conditioned, and could have traveled at 120 miles per hour.

Phelps Dodge Corporation developed the copper Dymaxion Bathroom in 1936. (Aluminum, plastics, and such materials were not readily available or reasonably priced in the mid-1930s.) The quart of water necessary for a 10-minute bath would, in addition, provide an invigorating massage. The bathroom would have been free of sewage pipes, and waste material would have been stored for pickup and processing.

Following World War II, Beech Aircraft Company at Wichita, Kansas, wanted to convert their aircraft production plant into an assembly line for a Dymaxion House, which became known as the Wichita House of 1945-1946. Labor unions supported the project in order to retain full employment, but financial backers and the industry decided against it. In this failure America lost a chance, in 1945, to work toward solving housing and allied problems that came to plague the cities by the 1970s.

Geodesic Domes

Undaunted, Fuller began developing his ideas on geodesic domes, using the tetrahedron (of four triangular sides), economic in material and weight and thus of maximum efficiency, as a basic component. After numerous experimental prototypes, industry began to understand the advantages of such structures. In 1953 the Ford Company built a geodesic dome in Dearborn, Michigan, 93 feet in diameter; the Marine Corps built numerous smaller ones; and in 1958-1959 the Union Tank Car Company of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, constructed a dome 384 feet in diameter. Fuller's proposal for a hemispherical dome two miles in diameter to cover a portion of Manhattan Island, New York, to enclose a controlled environment was not acted on. But perhaps the best opportunity for a gigantic temporary structure of this kind was lost when the president of the 1964 World's Fair vetoed a proposed dome which would have covered 646 acres.

The United States Pavilion at Montreal's Expo 1967 was a three-quarter globe designed by Fuller, 200 feet high and 250 feet in diameter. Although the structure and its contents drew some sharp criticism, they represented "Creative America." Fuller's later experiments were geared toward an understanding of the world's resources and their efficient utilization.

Fuller's Influence

Fuller functioned primarily as a catalyst. He was important to the 20th century not only because of his own inventiveness but also for his influence upon the new generation. The pioneers of the modern movement, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, have less influence than Fuller, who was the forerunner of concepts of the efficient utilization of materials and, with the Bauhaus, of mass production.

Fuller's philosophy of design contributed to the faith many contemporary architects have placed in the computer-age concept of "megastructure"—the idea of incorporating a city into a single giant structural complex, encompassing all functions of the urban environment, into which individual cells of habitation can be "plugged" or onto which they can be "clipped."

Although megastructure is impractical, with regard to structural feasibility and cost in the third quarter of the 20th century, when new structural techniques evolve and when the populace and its leadership understand the need for comprehensive planning then megastructure could be one possible solution to population growth and the habitation of man on a grand scale. Still, some critics argue that such an environment would be inhuman as well as impractical. British critic Kenneth Clark considers ideas such as megastructure "the most disreputable of all forms of public utterance," which "threatens to impair our humanity."

Fuller was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and held more than 2,000 patents. From 1959 until his death, due to a heart attack, on July 1, 1983, Fuller was a research professor in design science and a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, as well as a popular lecturer. During his life, Fuller wrote 25 books.

Further Reading

Fuller's ideas are presented in his Nine Chains to the Moon (1938); No More Secondhand Gods, and Other Writings (1963); and Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure (1963). Fuller's contemporary influence is examined in James T. Badlwin, Buckyworks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas Today, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996. A biography is Robert Snyder, R. Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario, St. Martin's Press, 1980. The Fuller Research Foundation published Dymaxion Index: Bibliography and Published Items Regarding Dymaxion and Buckminster Fuller, 1927-1953 (rev. ed. 1953). Other works that discuss Fuller's influence include Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism; Ethic or Aesthetic? (1966), and Royston Landau, New Directions in British Architecture (1968). □

Fuller, R. Buckminster

views updated May 18 2018


A major contributor to scientific engineering and environmental studies, Richard Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller (1895–1983) was born on July 12 in Milton, Massachusetts, and died July 1 in Los Angeles, California. His epitaph, "TRIMTAB," sums up the worldview of the man who coined the term "spaceship earth." Trim tab is an aviator's term that refers to adjusting the wing's surface in order to change direction slightly. "TRIMTAB" refers to Fuller's belief that no one could actually steer the entire spaceship earth, but one could adjust the course slightly and stabilize it in times of turbulence.

Fuller entered Harvard in 1914, only to be expelled twice for "irresponsibility and lack of interest." From this inauspicious educational beginning, Fuller went on to receive forty-four honorary degrees, lecture at more than five hundred universities around the world, author twenty-four books as well as hundreds of articles, travel around the world more than forty times, and hold twenty-six patents.

Fuller was an environmentalist long before the word was popular. In 1927, Fuller designed Dymaxion House, a metal structure hung from a central mast with outer walls of glass. The unique house was heated and cooled by natural means, created its own power, included prefabrication, had rotating closets, was self-vacuuming, and was storm- and earthquake-proof. He built an example of the Dymaxion House in 1946 in Wichita, Kansas. In naming this contribution, Fuller demonstrated he was also a master of creating neologisms. Dymaxion is a combination of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion." These three properties characterize his design strategy applied to many different problems.

For the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, Fuller designed and built the Dymaxion Car. It had three wheels, was twenty feet long, carried eleven passengers, got thirty miles to a gallon of gasoline, and obtained a speed of 120 miles per hour. The car could make a u-turn within its own length.

In 1936, Fuller turned his attention to poor sanitation and the high cost of bathrooms. The five-square-foot Dymaxion Bathroom was his solution. The prefabricated bathroom consisted of four sections of either sheet metal or molded plastic. All of the necessary pipes, wires, and appliances were built in so that the entire unit merely required being hooked up. Both the sink and bath/shower allowed easy access by children and seniors.

In 1940, recognizing the need for military housing, Fuller designed and built the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (DDU). The DDU was a circular structure twenty feet in diameter made of corrugated galvanized steel, lined with wallboard on the inside and insulated with fiberglass. The house was naturally air-conditioned. Superheated air rising from the outer steel walls created a vacuum under the house that sucked cool air down the ventilator.

Fuller's Dymaxion Airocean World Map shows the continents on a flat surface without any visible distortion. On this map, the earth appears to be approximately one island surrounded by water. In the March 1, 1943, issue, Life magazine published Fuller's world map. That issue sold 3 million copies, the largest circulation of the magazine to that date.

In 1945, the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine house was designed and built. This was a vast improvement on the DDU house. The intention was to create a prefabricated house at low cost whose disassembled parts could be shipped anywhere in the world to meet the housing needs that were emerging at the end of World War II. The house was featured in Fortune magazine and generated thousands of unsolicited orders. These orders were never filled because of ethical differences between Fuller and financiers.

In 1948 Fuller created the most well known of his designs, the geodesic dome. A geodesic dome was selected for the United States Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Exposition, where it still stands.

Buckminster Fuller was an early thinker about the entire earth. His Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1978) helped to focus world attention on one earth and the growing need to work together for survival. In poetic works such as No More Secondhand God (1963), Fuller also imbued technology with religious significance and called on human beings to accept responsibility for their god-like powers. He argued that human beings had to either create utopia or destroy themselves. Synergetics and Synergistics 2 (1975 and 1979) is Fuller's mathematical masterpiece concerning the geometry of nature and the universe.

A truly remarkable man, Fuller's contributions all focused on what he referred to as a "Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science." In this view, the science is directed to anticipating human problems and solving them by providing more and more support for everyone, with less and less resources. Yet Fuller often expressed himself in a vocabulary that critics sometimes found eccentric if not opaque.


SEE ALSO Earth;Earth Systems Engineering and Management;Efficiency;Engineering Ethics;Environmentalism.


Fuller, Buckminster. (1938). Nine Chains to the Moon. New York: J. B. Lippencott. Fuller's solution to the space trajectory to the moon.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1962). Education Automation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press. Thoughts about educationally effective and environmentally safe applications of automation.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1963). No More Secondhand God. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Fuller's view of how technology and the spiritual are related.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1970 [1928]). 4-D Timelock. Corrales, NM: The Lama Foundation. Fuller's view of the space-time continuum.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1973). Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Penguin. A view of earth as a contained spaceship with finite and non-renewable natural resources.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1975). Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. New York: Macmillan. The geometry of nature is presented in this volume and the second volume.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1979). Synergetics 2: Further Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. New York: Macmillan.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1981). Critical Path. New York: St. Martin's Press. An economic analysis solving problems within the model of using less to obtain more.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1983). Grunch of Giants. New York: St. Martin's Press. An extension of critical path with applications of Fuller's geometry of nature.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1983). Inventions—The Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller. New York: St. Martin's Press. A compendium of Fuller's inventions.

Fuller, Buckminster. (1992). Cosmography. New York: Macmillan. Published posthumously. An extension of Fuller's views of the universe and the earth as one of its elements.

Fuller, Richard Buckminster

views updated Jun 11 2018

Fuller, Richard Buckminster (1895–1983). American inventor of the Dymaxion House (1927), evolved from aircraft and motor-car construction techniques, intended for mass-production, and of the prefabricated modular bathroom (1929—patented 1936). While he was much concerned with the design of cheap, industrialized living-units, he also developed means of covering large areas by means of geodesic domes constructed on the spaceframe principle, using timber, plywood, metal, concrete, and other materials. These domes did not require elaborate foundations as their structural integrity was such that they only needed to be anchored to the ground. His US Pavilion at the International Exposition, Montréal, Canada (1967), was an exemplar. This system could enable huge clear-span structures to be made, and therefore whole cities could be roofed over, with considerable possibilities for environmental control and saving of energy. A collection of his somewhat breathless writings was published in 1970.


Baldwin (1996);
Fuller (1971, 1975, 1979, 1981);
A. Hatch (1974);
Krausse & Lichtenstein (eds.) (1999);
R. Marks (1973);
McHale (1962);
Pawley (1990a);
D. W. Robertson (1974);
Sieden (1989);
Vance (1987);
J. Ward & and Tomkins (1984)

Fuller, Richard Buckminster

views updated Jun 27 2018

Fuller, Richard Buckminster (1895–1983) US architect and engineer. Believing that only technology can solve modern world problems, he invented several revolutionary designs. The most widely used is the geodesic dome. His books include Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) and Earth Inc. (1973).