Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller by Boris Artzybasheff

Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983) was an American engineer and author. He popularized terms such as ‘Spaceship Earth,’ ephemeralization, and synergetics. He also developed numerous inventions, mainly architectural designs, the best known of which is the geodesic dome. Carbon molecules known as fullerenes were later named by scientists for their resemblance to geodesic spheres.

As a child he had trouble with geometry, being unable to understand the abstraction necessary to imagine that a chalk dot on the blackboard represented a mathematical point, or that an imperfectly drawn line with an arrow on the end was meant to stretch off to infinity. He often made items from materials he brought home from the woods, and sometimes made his own tools.

As an undergraduate, he was expelled from Harvard twice: first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his ‘irresponsibility and lack of interest.’ By age 32, Fuller was bankrupt and jobless, living in public, low-income housing in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1928, Fuller was living in Greenwich Village and spending much of his time at the popular café Romany Marie’s. He accepted a job decorating the interior of the café in exchange for meals, giving informal lectures several times a week, and models of his design, the ‘Dymaxion house’ were exhibited at the café. Famed Japanese-American artist, Isamu Noguchi arrived during 1929 — Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brâncuşi, an old friend of Marie’s, had directed him there — and Noguchi and Fuller were soon collaborating on several projects, including the modeling of the Dymaxion car. It was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.

Fuller taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the summers of 1948 and 1949, serving as its Summer Institute director in 1949. There, with the support of a group of professors and students, he began reinventing a project that would make him famous: the geodesic dome. Although the geodesic dome had been created some 30 years earlier by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld, Fuller was awarded United States patents. He is credited for popularizing this type of structure.

During 1949, he erected his first geodesic dome building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. It was 4.3 meters (14 ft) in diameter and constructed of aluminum aircraft tubing and a vinyl-plastic skin, in the form of an icosahedron. To prove his design, and to awe non-believers, Fuller suspended from the structure’s framework several students who had helped him build it. Within a few years there were thousands of these domes around the world.

For the next half-century, Fuller developed many ideas, designs and inventions, particularly regarding practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation. He documented his life, philosophy and ideas scrupulously by a daily diary (later called the Dymaxion Chronofile), and by twenty-eight publications.

Buckminster Fuller was an early environmental activist. He was very aware of the finite resources the planet has to offer, and promoted a principle that he termed ‘ephemeralization’ (doing more with less). Resources and waste material from cruder products could be recycled into making more valuable products, increasing the efficiency of the entire process. Fuller also developed synergetics, a school of thought on thinking and geometry. Fuller coined this term long before the term synergy became popular.

Fuller was a pioneer in thinking globally, and he explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design. Fuller was concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system, yet remained optimistic about humanity’s future.

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’ caused him to conclude that at a certain time during the 1970s, humanity had attained an unprecedented state. He was convinced that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities was not necessary anymore. Cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy.

Fuller was a frequent flier, often crossing time zones. He famously wore three watches; one for the current zone, one for the zone he had departed, and one for the zone he was going to.

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