Buckminster Fuller

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Engineers and inventors

Richard Buckminster ("Bucky") Fuller ( July 12, 1895 – July 1, 1983) was an American visionary, designer, architect, poet, author, and inventor.

Throughout his life, Fuller was concerned with the question "Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?" Considering himself an average individual without special monetary means or academic degree, he chose to devote his life to this question, trying to find out what an individual like him could do to improve humanity's condition that large organizations, governments, or private enterprises inherently could not do.

Pursuing this lifelong experiment, Fuller wrote twenty-eight books, coining and popularizing terms such as "spaceship earth", ephemeralization, and synergetics. He also boasts numerous inventions chiefly in the fields of design and architecture, the best known of which is the geodesic dome.

Late in his life, after working on his concepts for several decades, Fuller had achieved considerable public visibility. He traveled the world giving lectures, and received numerous honorary doctorates. Most of his inventions, however, never made it into production, and he was strongly criticized in most of the fields that he tried to influence (such as architecture), or simply dismissed as a hopeless utopian. Fuller's proponents, on the other hand, claim that his work has not yet received the attention that it deserves.


Fuller was born on July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts, the son of Richard Buckminster Fuller and Caroline Wolcott Andrews. The Fuller family in particular produced noted New England non-conformists. Buckminster Fuller's father died when the boy was 12. Spending his youth on Bear Island off the coast of Maine, he was a boy with a natural propensity for design and for making things. He often made things from materials he brought home from the woods, and he even sometimes made his own tools. Notably, he experimented with designing a new apparatus for the human-powered propulsion of small boats. Years later he decided that this sort of experience had provided him not only an interest in design, but a habit of being fully familiar and knowledgeable about the materials that his ambitious later projects would require for actualization. Indeed, Fuller earned a machinist's certification, and he also knew how to fabricate using the press brake, stretch press, and other tools and equipment relied upon in the sheet-metal trade.

Fuller was sent to Milton Academy, in Massachusetts. Afterwards, he began studying at Harvard but was expelled from the university twice: first, for entertaining an entire dance troupe; and second, for his "irresponsibility and lack of interest." By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment. Later in life, Fuller received a Sc.D. from Bates College in 1969.

Between his sessions at Harvard, he worked for a time in Canada as a mechanic in a textile mill, and later as a laborer working 12 hours a day in the meat-packing industry. He married in 1917, and he also served in the U.S. Navy in World War I. In the Navy he was employed as an aboard-ship radio operator, as an editor of a publication, and as a crash-boat commander. After discharge, he again worked for a period in the meat-packing business, where he acquired management experience. In the early 1920s he and his father-in-law developed the Stockade Building System for producing light-weight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing — though ultimately the company failed.

In 1927 at the age of 32, bankrupt and jobless, living in inferior housing in Chicago, Illinois, he saw his beloved young daughter Alexandra die of the complications of polio and spinal meningitis. He felt responsible, and this drove him to drink and to the verge of suicide. At the last moment he decided instead to embark on "an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity."

Fuller accepted a position at a small college in North Carolina, Black Mountain College. There, with the support of a group of professors and students, he began work on the project that would make him famous and revolutionize the field of engineering, the geodesic dome. Using lightweight plastics in the simple form of a tetrahedron (a triangular pyramid) he created a small dome. He had designed the first building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. The U.S. government recognized the importance of the discovery and employed him to make small domes for the army. Within a few years there were thousands of these domes around the world.

For the next half-century Buckminster Fuller contributed a wide range of ideas, designs and inventions to the world, particularly in the areas of practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation. He documented his life, philosophy and ideas scrupulously in a daily diary and in 28 publications. Fuller financed some of his experiments with inherited family money, sometimes augmented by funds invested by his professional collaborators, one example being the Dymaxion Car project.

His international recognition was established by the success of his huge geodesic domes in the 1950s. Fuller taught at Southern Illinois University Carbondale from 1959 – 1970 (Assistant Professor 1959 – 68, full Professor in 1968) in the School of Art and Design. Working as a designer, scientist, developer, and writer, for many years he also lectured all over the world on design. Fuller collaborated at SIU with the designer John McHale. In 1965 Fuller inaugurated the World Design Science Decade (1965 to 1975) at the meeting of the International Union of Architects in Paris. This was (in his own words) devoted to "applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity."

Fuller believed human societies would soon be relying mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar- and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of "omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity."

Fuller was ultimately awarded 25 US patents and many honorary doctorates. On January 16, 1970 Fuller received the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects and also received numerous other awards.

He died at the age of 88, a guru of the design, architecture, and 'alternative' communities (such as Drop City, an experimental artists community to whom he awarded the 1966 "Dymaxion Award" for "poetically economic" domed living structures). His wife was comatose and dying of cancer and while visiting her in the hospital he exclaimed at one point: "She is squeezing my hand!". He then stood up, suffered a massive heart attack and died an hour later. His wife died 36 hours later. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, Massachusetts.

Philosophy and worldview

Buckminster Fuller strove to inspire humanity to take a comprehensive view of the finite world we live in and the infinite possibilities for an ever-increasing standard of living within it. Deploring waste, he advocated a principle that he termed " ephemeralization" — which in essence (according to Stewart Brand) Fuller coined to mean "doing more with less." Wealth can be increased by recycling resources into newer, higher value products whose more technically sophisticated design requires less material. In practice, it has often meant miniaturization, for example, as when table-model calculating machines were succeeded over time by smaller ones, until the calculator of today fits in one's hand. Fuller also introduced synergetics, which explores holistic engineering structures in nature (long before the term synergy became popular).

Fuller was one of the first to propagate a systemic worldview (see ' Operating manual for Spaceship Earth', ' Synergetics') and explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design. He cited Francois de Chardenedes' view that petroleum from the standpoint of its replacement cost out of our current energy "budget" (essentially the incoming solar flux), he declared that it had cost nature "over a million dollars" per U.S. gallon ($300,000/L) to produce. From this point of view its use as a transportation fuel by people commuting to work represents a huge net loss compared to their earnings (See: Critical Path pp. xxxiv-xxxv).

He dedicated himself to advancing the success and fulfillment of humanity and lived by a set of self-disciplines; he was deeply concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system, yet was profoundly optimistic about humanity's prospects. Defining wealth in terms of knowledge, as the "technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life", his analysis of the condition of "Spaceship Earth" led him to conclude that at a certain point in the 1970s humanity had crossed an unprecedented watershed.

What might otherwise sound like an article of faith in some spiritual or philosophical system had for Fuller become an objective fact — that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of key recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had reached a critical level, such that competition for necessities was no longer necessary. Cooperation had became the optimum survival strategy. "Selfishness", he declared, "is unnecessary and...unrationalizable...War is obsolete..."

By considering historical comparisons like the fact that even relatively poor people today are able to travel at speeds and with a degree of comfort which were unobtainable at any price in earlier times, and that illnesses that were fatal even to kings in the past can now be cured with affordable drugs, he concluded that everyone alive today can potentially live like a "billionaire." Hence he described the human race as "four billion billionaires."

Besides important comprehensiveness of thought and his philosophical concepts, Fuller's most lasting insights may be geometric. He claimed that the natural analytic geometry of the universe was based on arrays of tetrahedra. He developed this in several ways, from the close-packing of spheres and the number of compressive or tensile members required to stabilize an object in space. Some deep confirming results were that the strongest possible homogeneous truss is cyclically tetrahedral.

Practical achievements

Certainly, a number of Fuller's projects did not meet success in terms of commitment from industry or acceptance by a broad public. However, many geodesic domes have been built and are in use. According to the Buckminster Fuller Institute Web site, the largest geodesic-dome structures (listed in descending order from largest diameter) are: /

  • Fantasy Entertainment Complex: Kyosho Isle, Japan, 710 feet / 216 m
  • Multi-Purpose Arena: Nagoya, Japan, 614 feet / 187 m
  • Tacoma Dome: Tacoma, WA, USA, 530 feet / 162 m
  • Superior Dome: Northern Michigan Univ. Marquette, MI, USA, 525 feet / 160 m
  • Walkup Skydome: Northern Arizona Univ. Flagstaff, AZ, USA, 502 feet / 153 m
  • Round Valley High School Stadium: Springerville- Eagar, AZ, USA, 440 feet / 134 m
  • Former Spruce Goose Hangar: Long Beach, CA, USA, 415 feet / 126 m
  • Formosa Plastics Storage Facility: Mai Liao, Taiwan, 402 feet / 123 m
  • Union Tank Car Maintenance Facility: Baton Rouge, LA USA, 384 feet / 117 m
  • Lehigh Portland Cement Storage Facility: Union Bridge, MD USA, 374 feet / 114 m
  • The Eden Project, Cornwall, United Kingdom Eden Project]

Fuller's development of the dome and his roles as a philosopher and as a gadfly within the design and architectural communities left an important legacy. He introduced a number of concepts, and if every one wasn't entirely new, we can still say that he honed each one well.

Thousands of geodesic domes have been built, but they are not an everyday sight in most places. Contrary to initial hopes, in practice most of the smaller owner-built geodesic structures proved to have drawbacks (discussed in the Wikipedia section on geodesic domes); plus, as a home, many people have been put off by the domes' unconventional appearance.

An interesting spin-off of Fuller's dome-design conceptualization was the Buckminster Ball, which was the official FIFA approved design for footballs (soccer balls), from their introduction at the 1970 World Cup until recently. The design was essentially a "Geodesic Sphere", consisting of 12 pentagonal and 20 hexagonal panels. This was used continuously for 34 years until it was replaced by a 14-panel version in the 2006 World Cup.

While an envisioned widespread and common adoption of geodesic domes is yet to materialize, Fuller's ideas, teachings, and attitude to life and creativity, in combination, have prodded designers and engineers. What Fuller accomplished, in this sense, was to make professionals and students think "outside the box"; to question convention. Fuller was followed (historically) by other designers and architects (for example, Sir Norman Foster and Steve Baer) willing to explore the possibilities of new geometries in the design of buildings, not based on the conventional rectangles. The English writer, playwright, and philosopher John Dryden wrote something quite relevant to the pioneering forays of Fuller still to be brought to full result: "We must beat the iron while it is hot, but we may polish it at leisure."

Facts and Figures

  • Fuller was friends with Boston artist Pietro Pezzati.
  • He experimented with polyphasic sleep.
  • He was a Unitarian-Universalist.
  • A new allotrope of carbon ( fullerene) and a particular molecule of that allotrope ( buckminsterfullerene or buckyballs) have been named after him. The Buckminsterfullerene molecule, which consists of 60 carbon atoms, very closely resembles a spherical version of Fuller's geodesic dome.
  • On July 12, 2004 the United States Post Office released a new commemorative stamp honoring R. Buckminster Fuller on the 50th anniversary of his patent for the geodesic dome and on the occasion of his 109th birthday.
  • Fuller documented his life every 15 minutes from 1915 to 1983, leaving behind 270 feet / 80 m worth of journals. He called this the Dymaxion Chronofile. This is said to be the most documented human life in history.
  • He dedicated the US Pavilion dome at Expo 67 to his wife Anne when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there.
  • Around 1979-1980, Bucky shared a lecture tour across America with philosopher Werner Erhard.
"If somebody kept a very accurate record of a human being, going through the era from the Gay 90s, from a very different kind of world through the turn of the century — as far into the twentieth century as you might live. I decided to make myself a good case history of such a human being and it meant that I could not be judge of what was valid to put in or not. I must put everything in, so I started a very rigorous record."
  • Buckminster and John Denver were very close friends and the song "What One Man Can Do" on John's 1982 album "Seasons of the Heart" was written on the occasion of R. Buckminster's 85th birthday. John dedicated this song to him.

Use of Language and Neologisms

Buckminster Fuller spoke and wrote in a unique style and thought it crucial to describe the world as accurately as possible. Fuller often created long run-on sentences and used unusual compound words (omniwell-informed, intertransformative, omni-interaccommodative, omniself-regenerative) as well as terms he himself coined. Fuller used the word 'Universe' without the definite or indefinite articles (a or the) and always capitalized the word. Universe to Fuller meant the sum of all experience.

Fuller replaced the words 'up' and 'down' with 'in' and 'out' of a gravitational centre, holding that 'up' and 'down' referred only to a planar concept inconsistent with how humans experience the world. 'World-around' is a term coined by Fuller to replace worldwide. The general belief in a flat Earth died out in the Middle Ages, so using wide is an anachronism when referring to the surface of the Earth — a spheroidal surface has area and encloses a volume, but has no width. Fuller held that unthinking use of obsolete scientific ideas detracts from and misleads intuition. The terms sunsight and sunclipse are other neologisms, according to Allegra Fuller Snyder collectively coined by the Fuller family, replacing sunrise and sunset in order to overturn the geocentric bias of most pre- Copernican celestial mechanics. Fuller also coined the phrase Spaceship Earth, and coined the term (but did not invent) tensegrity.

It has also been claimed that Fuller coined the phrase debunk in 1927, however many credit William Woodward for the term in 1923.

Concepts and buildings

  • R. Buckminster Fuller's 28 patents

His concepts and buildings include:

  • Dymaxion house (1928) See autonomous building
  • Aerodynamic Dymaxion car (1933)
  • Prefabricated compact bathroom cell (1937)
  • Dymaxion Map of the world (1946)
  • Buildings (1943)
  • Tensegrity structures (1949)
  • Geodesic dome for Ford Motor Company (1953)
  • Patent on geodesic domes (1954)
  • The World Game (1961) and the World Game Institute (1972)
  • Patent on octet truss (1961)


His publications include the following:

  • 4-D Timelock (1928)
  • Nine Chains to the Moon (1938, ISBN 0-224-00800-5)
  • The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller (1960, ISBN 0-385-01804-5) With Robert W. Marks. Anchor Press, Doubleday & Company, Inc.
  • Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization (1962, ISBN 0-671-20478-5)
  • Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to his Studies (1962, ISBN 0-8093-0137-7) - online at http://reactor-core.org/education-automation.html
  • Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963/1969/1971, ISBN 0-525-47433-1) - online at http://bfi.org/node/422
  • Your Private Sky ( ISBN 3-907044-88-6)
  • Ideas and Integrities (1969, ISBN 0-02-092630-8)
  • Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (1969, ISBN 0-7139-0134-9)
  • Approaching the Benign Environment (1970, ISBN 0-8173-6641-5)
  • I Seem to Be a Verb (1970)
  • No More Secondhand God and Other Writings (1963/1971)
  • Buckminster Fuller to Children of Earth (1972, ISBN 0-385-02979-9)
  • Intuition (1972, ISBN 0-385-01244-6)
  • Earth, Inc. (1973, ISBN 0-385-01825-8)
  • Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (1975/1979, ISBN 0-02-541870-X vol. 1, ISBN 0-02-541880-7 vol. 2) - online at http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/synergetics.html
  • And It Came to Pass — Not to Stay (1976, ISBN 0-02-541810-6)
  • Tetrascroll: Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Cosmic Fairy Tale (1977/1982, ISBN 0-312-79362-6) - online at http://www.fullereducation.org/fec_folder/tetrascroll.pdf
  • R. Buckminster Fuller on Education (1979, ISBN 0-87023-276-2)
  • Critical Path (1981, ISBN 0-312-17491-8)
  • Grunch of Giants (1983, ISBN 0-312-35194-1) - online at http://reactor-core.org/grunch-of-giants.html
  • Inventions: the Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller (1983, ISBN 0-312-43477-4)
  • Humans in Universe (1983, Mouton; ISBN 0-89925-001-7); with Anwar Dil
  • Cosmography (1992, ISBN 0-02-541850-5)

Secondary literature

  • Sidney Rosen Wizard of the Dome: R. Buckminster Fuller, Designer for the Future. 1969 ( ISBN 0-316-75707-1)
  • Hugh Kenner Bucky: A guided tour of Buckminster Fuller. 1973 ( ISBN 0-688-00141-6)
  • Donald Robertson Mind's Eye Of Buckminster Fuller. 1974 ( ISBN 0-533-01017-9) Vantage Press, Inc., New York.
  • Alden Hatch Buckminster Fuller At Home In The Universe. 1974 ( ISBN 0-440-04408-1) Crown Publishers, New York.
  • E. J. Applewhite Cosmic Fishing: An account of writing Synergetics with Buckminster Fuller. 1977 ( ISBN 0-02-502710-7)
  • A Fuller Explanation by Amy C. Edmondson offers a discussion of his work in geometry and systems.
  • Buckminster Fuller also appears as a character in Paul Wühr's book "Das falsche Buch".
  • Lloyd Sieden Buckminster Fuller's Universe, His Life and Work. 1989 ( ISBN 0-7382-0379-3), explores Fuller's personal life, his beliefs and drives.
  • Martin Pawley Buckminster Fuller. 1991 ( ISBN 0-8008-1116-X), offers an architectural critic's assessment of Fuller's ideas and projects.
  • His former student J. Baldwin wrote BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today 1997 ( ISBN 0-471-19812-9).
  • Erle, Schuyler; Gibson, Rich; & Walsh, Jo (2005). Mapping Hacks. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media. ISBN 0-596-00703-5. Preface dedicates book to Bucky and relates the potential of networked virtual globes to Bucky's Geoscope.
  • McHale, John. R. Buckminster Fuller. George Brazillier, Inc., New York. hardback. 1962.
  • Morgan, G.J. (2003). "Historical Review: Viruses, Crystals and Geodesic Domes". Trends in Biochemical Sciences 28: 86-90.
  • Lord, V. Athena. Pilot For Spaceship Earth. Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., New York. hardback. 1978 ( ISBN 0-02-761420-4)
  • Snyder, Robert. Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario. St. Martin's Press, New York. hardback. 1980 ( ISBN 0-312-24547-5)
  • Synergetic Stew: Explorations In Dymaxion Dining. The Buckminster Fuller Institute, Philadelphia. paperback. 1982 ( ISBN 0-911573-00-3)
  • Ward, James. Ed. The Artifacts Of R. Buckminster Fuller, A Comprehensive Collection of His Designs and Drawings in Four Volumes: Volume One. The Dymaxion Experiment, 1926-1943; Volume Two. Dymaxion Deployment, 1927-1946; Volume Three. The Geodesic Revolution, Part 1, 1947-1959; Volume Four. The Geodesic Revolution, Part 2, 1960-1983: Edited with descriptions by James Ward. Garland Publishing, New York. 1984 ( ISBN 0-8240-5082-7 vol. 1, ISBN 0-8240-5083-5 vol. 2, ISBN 0-8240-5084-3 vol. 3, ISBN 0-8240-5085-1 vol. 4)
  • Brenneman, Richard. Fuller's Earth, A Day With Bucky And The Kids St. Martin's Press, New York, c. 1984. hardcover ( ISBN 0-312-30981-3)
  • E. J. Applewhite, ed. Synergetics Dictionary, The Mind Of Buckminster Fuller; in four volumes. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York and London. 1986 ( ISBN 0-8240-8729-1)
  • Potter, R. Robert. Buckminster Fuller (Pioneers in Change Series). Silver Burdett Publishers. 1990 ( ISBN 0-382-09972-9)
  • Pawley, Martin. Buckminster Fuller. Taplinger Publishing Company, New York. 1991. hardcover ( ISBN 0-8008-1116-X)
  • Krausse, Joachim and Lichtenstein, Claude. ed. Your Private Sky, R. Buckminster Fuller: The Art Of Design Science. Lars Mueller Publishers. 1999 ( ISBN 3-907044-88-6)
  • Zung, T.K. Thomas. Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for a New Millennium. St. Martin’s Press. 2001 ( ISBN 0-312-26639-1)
  • Disney's Dome, Ray Charles

Former students

  • J. Baldwin
  • Pierre Cabrol
  • Joseph Clinton
  • David Johnston
  • Peter Pearce
  • Shoji Sadao
  • Kenneth Snelson
  • Ruth Asawa

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