Richard Buckminster Fuller

views updated

Richard Buckminster Fuller


American Architect and Inventor and Mathematician

R. Buckminster Fuller was among the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. He is best remembered for developing the geodesic dome, the only practical type of building that has no inherent size limitations beyond which it can not support its own structure. He conceived of human beings as passengers on "Spaceship Earth" and concerned himself with finding ways to maximize the social benefits to be derived from a limited set of resources.

Fuller was born on July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts, the descendant of a long line of New England intellectuals. His great-aunt Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was an influential philosopher of the Transcendentalist movement, a social reformer, and an ardent campaigner for women's rights.

Despite his pedigree, Fuller never completed his formal education, twice being expelled from Harvard for cutting classes. After serving in the United States Navy during World War I, he married Anne Hewlett. Anne's father, James Hewlett, an architect, had developed a modular construction method using compressed fiber blocks. The two men went into business together, and Fuller supervised the construction of several hundred houses.

Fuller was the junior partner in the business, and when it ran into financial difficulties in 1927, he found himself forced out. Impoverished and reduced to living with his family in a Chicago slum, he devoted himself to designs for the modern world. His goals were "maximum gain of advantage from minimum energy output," so that Earth's resources could be used for the benefit of all. While he became known as an inventor, he regarded his innovations as simply part of an overall strategy to do more with less, so that the needs of the entire global population could be fulfilled.

His early designs were given the name "Dymaxion," combining "dynamic" and "maximum," two key ideas of Fuller's philosophy. The factory-assembled Dymaxion house, prototyped within a year of his ouster from the construction firm, was built on a mast so that it could be easily moved from one site to another. It had its own utilities and cost no more than a new car.

Fuller then set out to build the new car. The streamlined, three-wheeled Dymaxion automobile, built in 1933, could carry 12 people at up to 120 mph, go off-road, and turn 180 degrees in its own length, while averaging 28 miles per gallon of gasoline. Tragically, a fatal accident occurred during testing. Although the fault actually lay with the other car involved, it doomed the project. Only three Dymaxion cars were built, of which one still exists at the National Auto Museum in Reno, Nevada.

Fuller developed his "energetic-synergetic geometry" based on the tetrahedron, or four-sided pyramid, because he had observed that in nature such a shape affords a maximum of strength with a minimum of structure. Applying his geometry to architecture, Fuller came up with the geodesic dome. Its lightweight polygonal facets distribute stress uniformly throughout the structure, and its strength increases logarithmically with size. Unlike other large domes, it can be prefabricated and then set into place. The geodesic dome that served as the United States pavilion during Expo 67 in Montreal was followed by "dome homes," sports facilities, theaters, and greenhouses.

Fuller joined the faculty of Southern Illinois University (Carbondale) in 1959. He died in Los Angeles on July 1, 1983. Two years later chemists Richard E. Smalley (1943- ), Robert F. Curl (1933- ), and Sir Harold W. Kroto (1939- ) discovered the third known form of pure carbon (after diamond and graphite), consisting of 60 atoms fitted together in a hollow sphere resembling a geodesic dome. The scientists named their discovery, for which they won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, buckminsterfullerene. The carbon structures are colloquially known as buckyballs.


About this article

Richard Buckminster Fuller

Updated About content Print Article