Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller

From a piece of writing shortly before he died: "I am now close to 88 and I am confident that the only thing important about me is that I am an average healthy human."

Oh how wrong he was. Buckminster Fuller, known as Bucky, was exactly the sort of eccentric that I idolise. You may be familiar with his name through high school chemistry; Buckminsterfullerine. "Bucky Balls," are formations of carbon that bare resemblance to the Geodesic Domes that Bucky helped to popularise. But the hard working individual that created so much, started off life with a lot less drive.

As far as I can see Fuller is the only person to be kicked out of Harvard twice. The latter was simply for lack of interest in his studies, but the first was for blowing all of his money on a multiday party where he hired an entire vaudeville troupe as entertainment.

The First World War broke out when he was 19 and throughout his twenties Fuller lived life aimlessly, working lots of jobs for short periods. After the birth of his second daughter (the first died from polio when she was four) he and his wife were in financial difficulties and he was contemplating suicide for the life insurance.

In 1927, at the age of 32, he had a moment of suddenly deciding to live his life for the betterment of humanity. He became interested in environmental design concepts and sought to do the most good with the least energy input. One of the first projects was called the Dymaxion House and it was the first mass produced autonomous home. They would be shipped out, then assembled on site like a flat-pack. Everything within them was designed with efficiency in mind. The first run came out in 1930, but the redesign in 1945 was ready for the postwar housing crisis and was particularly successful.

Dymaxion House, 1945

Dymaxion House, 1945

Dymaxion was a word he attached to most of his inventions and is a portmanteau of Dynamic, Maximum and Tension, which were apparently words he used a lot. He was fond of creating words: for instance he called upstairs and downstairs, outstairs and instairs. The idea was you were going in towards the centre of the Earth or out away from it; whereas up and down reinforce a flat Earth model in people's minds.

After the success of the house Bucky started work on the Dymaxion Car. Again the idea was energy efficiency and mass production. As with everything he designed it had a beautiful Art Deco aesthetic.

Dymaxion Car

Dymaxion Car

Bucky always planned on a worldwide scale (although he would have used the phrase worldaround because again worldwide is very flat Earthist) and thought that other Utopian plans at the time were failing because they always started on too small a scale. He was an idealist dreamer living in a time when that was popular. He had lived through the Futurism Movement and its various successors and he did a lot of his work in the 40s where techno-optimism was being reinforced through the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Bucky's plans for the Dymaxion Car were overly ambitious and they started with the premise that at one point they would be able to make it fly. Realising that the technology was not yet there they focused on the automobile side of the design and on the aerodynamics of the framework. It was steered by the sole wheel at the back and could turn 90 degrees on the spot. The whole thing was built on a dime, but ultimately the market for that breed of car was taken by the Crysler Airflow which it had inspired. Several high profile crashes of prototype Dymaxion Cars, including one with Bucky at the wheel sealed its fate.

His big success came when he was handed the American patents for the Geodesic Domes. There had been a prototype dome built 30 years before by their inventor Dr Walther Bauersfeld but nothing had come of it. In 1949 Fuller constructed his first dome at Bennington College Vermont. It was a huge success and ovoer the next few years thousands had emerged across the USA; every university or business that wanted to appear future orientated erected one.

Montreal Biosphere, 1969

Montreal Biosphere, 1969

These huge structures were self supporting and very strong. At the vertices there are either 5 or 6 triangles meeting at the point which I write about in some detail here.

If you have read any 1950s Science Fiction you will have seen the influence these domes had. People envisioned huge canopies where we could have control of our pollution levels, oxygen supply, weather and so much more. In many of the early Isaac Asimov books Earth was imaged as a series of city domes connected by tunnels. See Caves of Steel and Foundation. Bare that in mind when you see the next picture of Fuller's plans for Manhattan:

One can dream.

One can dream.

There were plenty of far reaching ideas that Fuller had, but I'm going to stop short of explaining The World Game or Guinea Pig B and instead I'm going to talk about some of his oddities. From 1915 to his death in 1983 he wrote in his diary every 15 minutes that he was awake! He wanted to create the raw data that might be used to analyse human behaviour one day. This incredible piece of work is called the Dymaxion Chronofile which, well, is just such a Bucky sort of name. The whole thing is 82 meters long and is housed at Stanford University.

He was also a infamous polyphasic sleeper (here's an article I wrote about it). He would sleep for half an hour every six hours; for a total of only two hours every "day." He kept this up for two years and decided to stop because it was awkward to meet with colleagues. He claimed that two hours was more than adequate for an adult human.

Since he traveled a lot for work he would usually wear three watches. One for where he was, one for the next place he was going to and one set to the same time as his office back in Illinois.

His death in 1983 came as he was at the bedside of his comatose wife in a hospital in Los Angeles. He was convinced that he felt her squeeze his hand and jumped up in excitement; promptly dying of a heart attack. She died two days later.

And so we had the life of engineer who was daring, inspiring and perhaps a little unhinged, but was certainly not average.

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