Fuller, Buckminster 1895-1983
Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller defined himself as a “random element,” and he has been described variously as an American visionary, architect, mathematician, inventor, designer, philosopher, and a “poet of technology” (Cruikshank 1981). He was the son of Richard Buckminster Fuller (who died when he was 12 years old) and Caroline Wolcott Andrews. He grew up in Maine and attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts. Later he was expelled twice from Harvard University. In his youth, he worked as a mechanic in a textile mill and as a laborer in a meatpacking plant. In 1917 he married Anne Hewlitt. After serving in the navy during World War I, Fuller and his father-in-law, the architect James Monroe Hewlitt, developed a company that produced lightweight, weather-proof, fireproof structures, but the company was unsuccessful and by 1927 Fuller was 32, bankrupt, and jobless. Living in substandard housing in Chicago, Fuller’s young daughter, Alexandra, died of a contagious disease. Fulled blamed himself, became suicidal, and contemplated jumping into Lake Michigan, but he was saved by an epiphany that he should devote himself fully to the betterment of all humanity. He spent a year without speaking as a discipline to focus his thoughts.
Fuller published Shelter magazine in the 1930s. He was science and technology consultant for Fortune magazine from 1938 until 1940, then lectured at numerous universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in the late 1950s he became a professor at Southern Illinois University, where he and Anne lived in a geodesic dome. In 1972 he was named “World Fellow in Residence” to a consortium of universities in Philadelphia, including the University of Pennsylvania. He retained h connection with both Southern Illinois University and the University of Pennsylvania until his death.
Fuller is perhaps best known for his invention of the geodesic dome. The dome’s design is based on “tensegrity” structures—tetrahedrons (triangular pyramids) and octahedrons (polyhedron with eight faces, resembling two pyramids attached at their bases). The geodesic dome is a perfect symbol to represent Fuller’s life-long examination of nature’s geometry. While Fuller was at Black Mountain College in 1948, using lightweight plastics he designed a small dome that became the first building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. Using his focus on nature, he had conceptualized that the natural analytic geometry of the universe is based on arrays of tetrahedra; independent research indicates that the strongest possible homogeneous truss is cyclically tetrahedral.
Fuller coined the word Dymaxion (from DYnamic MAXimum tensION) and used it when conceptualizing many of his works, including the Dymaxion map, which was the first map to depict the entire planet earth on a single flat surface without visible distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the continents. Another feature of the map is that it can be reconfigured to put different regions at the center; this perspective supported his philosophy that people must consider the world’s problems systemically rather than politically or regionally. His conceptualization of “spaceship earth” promoted the idea that the earth provides all that humans need in order to survive, but also that humans need to be wise stewards of these resources. He argued that we are all world citizens a that borders are arbitrary and typically unhelpful constructs. This philosophy led to the creation of his “world game,” a simulation and series of workshops that Fuller designed using the Dymaxion map to teach players ho best to use the earth’s abundance.
Fuller devoted his life’s work as to the optimal ways for humanity to survive successfully on earth. He coined the term ephemeralization, which refers to the tendency for contemporary technology to be replaced by much smaller, lighter, and more efficient technologies that offer multifunctionality. This was true to Fuller’s basic philosophy of learning from nature and doing more with less and producing less waste. Fuller also introduced the concept of synergetics, which refers to holistic engineering structures in nature and the blending of complementary factors that result in a product greater than the sum of its parts.
Some of his other key concepts and inventions include:
- Dymaxion house (1928)
- Aerodynamic Dymaxion car (1933)
- Prefabricated compact bathroom cell (1937)
- Tensegrity structures (1949)
- Geodesic dome for Ford Motor Company (1953)
- Patent on octet truss (1961)
Fuller was nominated for several Nobel Prizes, and he received the Medal of Freedom (the highest national award given to a civilian) for his “contributions as a geometrician, educator, and architect-designer” and the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects. He was awarded twenty-five U.S. patents and he received forty-seven honorary degrees. In 1991 Science magazine voted the Buckminsterfullerene the “molecule of the year.” The Buckminsterfullerene molecule, which consists of 60 carbon atoms and very closely resembles a spherical version of Fuller’s geodesic dome, was named in his honor.
Fuller, Richard Buckminster.  2000. Nine Chains to the Moon. New York: Doubleday.
Fuller, Richard Buckminster.  2000. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.
Fuller, Richard Buckminster.  1972. Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity. New York: Viking.
Fuller, Richard Buckminster. 1975. Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. New York: Scribner.
Fuller, Richard Buckminster. 1981. Critical Path. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Fuller, Richard Buckminster. 1985. Inventions: The Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Applewhite, Edward J., ed. 1986. Synergetics Dictionary: The Mind of Buckminster Fuller. New York: Garland.
Baldwin, Jay. 1997. BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Buckminster Fuller Institute Web site. 2005. http://www.bfi.org/
Cruikshank, Linda. 1981. Bucky Fuller: Poet of Technology. Vacaville (CA) Reporter (March 8).
Edmondson, Amy C. 1987. A Fuller Explanation. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser.
Fearnley, Christopher J. 2002. The R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ. http://www.cjfearnley.com/fuller-faq.html.
Kenner, Hugh. 1973. Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller. New York: Morrow.
Krausse, Joachim, and Claude Lichtenstein, eds. 1999. Your Private Sky, R. Buckminster Fuller: The Art of Design Science. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Mueller Publishers.
Marks, Robert W.  1973. The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. New York: Anchor Press.
O’Connor, John J., and Edmund F. Robertson. 2003. Richard Buckminster Fuller. MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. http://www-history.mcs.standrews.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Fuller.html.
Peck, Stacey. In Search of a Better World, They Put Their Faith in the Power of the Mind. March 15, 1981. http://www.salsburg.com/flyseye/flyseye.html.
Snyder, Robert. 1980. Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Ward, James, ed. 1984. The Artifacts of R. Buckminster Fuller, A Comprehensive Collection of His Designs and Drawings in Four Volumes. Vol. 1: The Dymaxion Experiment, 1926–1943 ; Vol. 2: Dymaxion Deployment, 1927–1946 ; Vol. 3: The Geodesic Revolution, Part 1, 1947–1959 ; Vol. 4: The Geodesic Revolution, Part 2, 1960–1983. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Chris E. Stout