Biography of R. Buckminster Fuller
Childhood to Early Adulthood
The eldest of four children (two sisters and a brother) Richard "Bucky" Fuller (as he was affectionately known) was born to Richard Buckminster Fuller Snr. and Caroline Wolcott, in Milton, Massachusetts in 1895. His family had a reputation for producing a long line of non-conformists who were active in their support for many causes. The most renowned Fuller family member was Bucky's Great Aunt, Margaret (Fuller), a critic, teacher and woman of letters who co-founded The Dial, the principal publication for the Transcendental movement. Margaret exerted a positive influence over the boy who duly took his diagnosis of near-sightedness, aged just four, somewhat in his stride. Legend tells it that Bucky also built his first architectural model, an octet truss, out of dried peas and toothpicks around the same age. Growing up near Bear Island, on the coast of Maine, he also developed a young boy's fascination with the sea and with boat building in particular.
Fuller Snr. died suddenly of a stroke in 1910 and, as the eldest son, the expectation was that Bucky would soon assume control of his father's business interests. The Fullers were well connected, with a lineage that attached the family name to Harvard. Fuller seemed to be fulfilling familial expectations when he attended the University in 1913. However, he was expelled after a year for excessive socializing and for skipping his midterm exams. Following his expulsion, he crossed the border into Canada where he took work at a mill. Here he developed his fascination with machinery, learning how to service the mill's manufacturing equipment. Fuller returned to Harvard in the autumn of 1915 but was dismissed once more, this time for a "lack of ambition".
In 1917, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, the daughter of the American Beaux Art architect James Monroe Hewlett. In the same year, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he confirmed his aptitude for engineering by inventing a winch for rescuing downed airplanes from the sea. As a result, Fuller was recommended for officer training at the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1918, still aged just 23, Fuller was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. His rank gave him a first-hand insight into the world of new technologies. As an aide to the Commander of all transport in the Atlantic during the First World War, for instance, he was witness at the first ever transatlantic telephone call. It was also in 1918 that Anne gave birth to their first child, Alexandra. Tragedy struck four years later when Alexandra died. It was life-changing moment for Fuller who blamed the family's poor living conditions for his daughter's premature demise. He vowed to make it his lifelong mission to provide a better quality of housing for ordinary Americans, and in 1922 he faced civilian life as an entrepreneur.
In 1926, Fuller and his father-in-law developed a new method of producing reinforced concrete buildings. The partners patented the invention (it would be the first of 25 patents attributed to Fuller) but unfortunately their design failed to generate significant commercial interest. A year later, following the financial failure of the construction company, a newly unemployed Fuller seriously contemplated suicide. Yet, in a moment of realization, no doubt helped by the fact he had become a new father to daughter Allegra, Fuller decided he had no right to end his own life, and committed instead to finding ways to use technology to "save the world from itself".
This period in Fuller's life saw him living in New York. He would paint the walls of a bohemian café in Greenwich Village in exchange for meals, and mixed socially with the playwright Eugene O'Neill and the artist and architect Isamu Noguchi with whom he developed a lifelong friendship and working relationship. Fuller made many scientific and mathematical notes and sketches during these early years and they reveal a simplicity to Fuller's designs that stayed with him throughout his life. In 1928, following a period of profound contemplation, Fuller distributed 200 mimeographed (xeroxed) copies of his essay "4D Time Lock", a business proposal explaining his plan for a new style of affordable housing. In it he wrote "These new homes are structured after the natural system of humans and trees with a central stem or backbone, from which all else is independently hung, utilizing gravity instead of opposing it. This results in a construction similar to an airplane, light, taut, and profoundly strong". It was signed under what would become his professional name: R. Buckminster Fuller.
Fuller applied the philosophy of his essay to practical designs. He presented a sketch of a "one town world" which offered a model for an inexpensive, mass-produced, home that could be delivered to locations all around the world by air. Originally called the "4D House", a wire structure that offered a completely practical living machine, was renamed the "Dymaxion House" by a department store that had a model of the house on display. The word "Dymaxion" was in fact coined by store executives and was then trademarked in Fuller's professional name. Based on the words "dynamic," "maximum," and "tension," it gave name to some of Fuller's most important inventions. The word would in fact become synonymous with his design philosophy of "doing more with less"; a maxim with no smaller aim than improving the standard of living for all humanity. In 1928 Fuller unveiled his blueprint for his Dymaxion Car, a three wheeled machine with a top speed nearing 200 km per hour and capable of carrying 12 passengers. With a manoeuvrability which allowed it to turn within its own length, and even though only three prototypes were ever produced, it was a remarkable conception that demanded the attention of the public.
In 1936 Fuller met Albert Einstein who is said to have been impressed with the science behind Fuller's vision. Fuller was already used to seeing his ideas in print. He had published Shelter magazine in the early 1930s, and between 1938 and 1940 he was the science and technology consultant for Fortune magazine. Fuller also published the first of some thirty books, Nine chains to the Moon in 1938. By 1940 Fuller had designed the prefabricated Dymaxion Bathroom and the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (DDU), a mass-produced mini-house modelled on circular grain bins. Though DDUs failed to catch on with the public, they would be used during the Second World War as a way of sheltering radar crews in remote locations with hostile climates. The DDUs would also provide the prototype for Fuller's famous round housing development. There was significant public interest in the Dymaxion House but because of obstacles with union contractors (who controlled rules governing access to public utilities), and differences between Fuller and the stockholders, no bank was willing to finance their mass production.
Fuller finally found national fame in 1943 after Life magazine made a feature of his Dymaxion Map (as a center page spread). It proved to be the best selling issue the magazine had published to date as readers were invited to remove the map and fold it into an icosahedron (twenty sided) globe. The map/globe, for which Fuller received a patent in 1946, was designed without any distortions in scale; Fuller's goal being to overcome the idea of a nation mentality and to promote the idea rather of a "one planet" society.
1948 proved a pivotal year in Fuller's career when he was invited to lecture at the radical Black Mountain College. The historian Katherine C. Reynolds wrote, "The events that precipitated the college's founding [in 1933] occurred simultaneously with the rise of Adolf Hitler, the closing of the Bauhaus school in Germany, and escalating persecution of artists and intellectuals in Europe. Some of these refugees found their way to Black Mountain, either as students or faculty". Reynolds adds that at that time the United States was itself "mired in the Great Depression" and that the founder of the college, John A. Rice, and an advisory board that included John Dewey, Albert Einstein, Walter Gropius, and Carl Jung, believed fervently that a "general liberal arts education" was essential for the "economic rebirth" of any democratic nation. It was with this in mind the college hired its first lead arts teacher, Bauhaus luminary Josef Albers. "Speaking not a word of English", writes Reynolds, Albers and his wife Anni "left the turmoil in Hitler's Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat to teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina". Hired by Albers, Fuller attend the college over two seasons between 1948-49 and it was here he was able to put the final touches to his Geodesic Dome project.
Following the success of the Dymaxion Map, Fuller devoted his life and career to his Geodesic Dome (for which he secured a patent in 1954). Fuller's "shelter for living" was a lightweight, easily assembled, and cost-effective structure that efficiently distributes stress (without the need for supporting columns and walls) and which could withstand extreme weather conditions. Based on Fuller's faith in "synergetic geometry", the Geodesic Dome was the upshot of his radical discoveries about the balance of compression and tension in building construction. There seemed to be no limit to Fuller's vision who saw his dome as a universal and cheap form of shelter that could fit everything from private homes to whole cities. In 1953 Fuller designed his first commercial dome for the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. The U.S. military soon followed, using the lightweight domes to cover radar stations at installations around the Arctic Circle.
In 1959 Fuller became research professor at Carbondale, Southern Illinois University (SIU) (he would work at SIU in other capacities until his retirement in 1975). He and his wife committed to spherical living by taking up residence in their own Geodesic home. His appointment fuelled his intellectual work and he fully committed to lecturing following Ancient Greek learning methods; the ethos of planting seeds of thought into young minds that might then blossom at some future date. He was an obsessive talker who conducted lectures of legendary length; sometimes running for as much as a day or more with only short breaks for refreshments.
Sometimes Fuller would express complex ideas in verse to make them more understandable. This led to a one-year appointment to the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard. He complimented his teaching commitments with a number of publications throughout the sixties, most notable of which were Education Automation (1962); Utopia or Oblivion (1969) and, his most famous book, Operating Manual for a Spaceship also published in 1969. In the latter, Fuller (who had coined the phrase "spaceship earth" over a decade earlier) proposed that one would abandon any idea of nation states and replace it with a spaceship system which was run on a precious fuel that everyone had a vested interest in preserving, and which duly optimised and regenerated the experience of common human life.
1965 saw the appearance of Drop City on the American landscape. Drop City was the brainchild of a group of Kansas art students who wanted to create a new art scene in the barren setting on rural South Colorado. Conceived of as a "live-in sculpture", the Geodesic Dome was the structure of choice for the Drop City commune who constructed them at next-to-no cost from mostly found and foraged resources. Having won the inaugural Dymaxion Award in 1967, Drop City, drew the attention of the popular press who singled it out as a communal utopia, that quickly turned to a dystopia when it was overrun with transient Hippies seeking to "drop-out" of mainstream society. By the early 1970s, Drop City was all but abandoned as a sort of geodesic ghost town.
In the late 1960s, Fuller created World Game with input from the likes of the Scottish futurologist and Independent Group member, John McHale, and his long-time collaborator, the Japanese-American architect, Shoji Sadao, a large-scale simulation and series of workshops he designed around a large-scale Dymaxion Map. He conceived of it as a means by which humanity might utilize the world's resources with greater efficiency. But possibly the most famous of all Geodesic Domes (if one discounts the Dome's most widespread use was to in hundreds of children's playgrounds around the world) was the Dome that featured at the 1967 Montreal World Fair. As science journalist Jonathan Glancey noted, the "most impressive of all [Fuller's Domes] was the eye-catching US Pavilion at Expo '67, the World Fair held that year in Montreal. It captured the attention of futuristic architects around the world and especially the young architect Norman Foster who employed Fuller as a consultant to his adventurous and, ultimately, hugely successful London studio". The said same Dome gained international publicity nine years later when it was engulfed in flames. It was, however, only the acrylic panelling that was destroyed while the steel structure remained defiantly, and fully, intact (along with its inventor's reputation).
Fuller started to accumulate many honors by this time, including a fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects which awarded him its Royal Gold Medal in 1968. He also received the Gold Medal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the same year.
Into his later years Fuller continued to teach tirelessly and he spent much of his time traveling around the world delivering lectures. Fuller viewed teaching as a two-way process and he gained a reputation for his extended conversations with students. The scientist and mathematician Michael Wiese recalls that Fuller would "cover the tablecloth in drawings of tetrahedrons and synergetics at dinner. It's as if it was his duty to share the planetary mission, so that awareness of his ideas would disseminate and successful human life would be achieved and generate endlessly". In 1972 he was named World Fellow in Residence to a consortium of universities in Philadelphia, including the University of Pennsylvania. He retained his connection with both SIU and the University of Pennsylvania until his death.
In January 1975, Fuller sat down to deliver the twelve lectures entitled Everything I Know. The lectures were captured on video and brought to life using the most advanced bluescreen (back projection) technology of the day. Props and background graphics illustrate the many concepts he visits and revisits, which include, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, "all of Fuller's major inventions and discoveries [...] his own personal history in the context of the history of science and industrialization" and a vast range of subject areas encompassing "architecture, design, philosophy, education, mathematics, geometry, cartography, economics, history, structure, industry, housing and engineering".
After being dismissed early in his career by the architectural and construction establishment, Fuller was finally recognized with several prestigious industry awards in the U.S. and overseas (he also received a total of 47 honorary doctorate degrees). In early 1983, Fuller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, America's highest civilian honor. On 1 July 1983, at the age of 87, R. Buckminster Fuller died of a heart attack while visiting his wife in the hospital she was being treated at for the advanced stages of cancer. It is said that Bucky had always promised Anne that he would "go first". Anne died 36 hours later.
The Legacy of R. Buckminster Fuller
Whilst R. Buckminster Fuller may not be a household name, his vision has left its indelible stamp on the world, most obviously through his iconic Geodesic Domes. Indeed, The Boston Globe estimated that more than 200,000 of the Domes have been erected around the globe since their inception. His vision of the Geoscope and World Game, meanwhile, seemed to many outlandish and utopian but have, in our post-modern world of screens and information technology, proved little short of prophetic. His Dymaxion designs have proved equally prescient and have left "an immense impact" on the worlds of science and design according to Britain's most famous living architect, Norman Foster.
Fuller's Dymaxion Car has garnered a cult-like following amongst a whole range of people including car enthusiasts, architecture aficionados and environmentalists. Foster, who built his own Dymaxion Car in 2010, enthused, "The car is such a beautiful object that I very much wanted to own it, to be able to touch as well as contemplate the reality for its delight in the same spirit as a sculpture". But Foster observed that the car represented much more than a collector's object, it having "triggering research projects about designing a new urban vehicle of the future". Indeed, Foster was fully alert to the comparisons with the Tesla car in its fusion of car design with sustainable technology, and other parallels with "Google's current research to transform conventional cars into robotically controlled vehicles". Fuller's impact on world geography has been equally influential, providing inspiration for Hajime Narukawa's 2016 "near perfect" AuthaGraph map. Considered the most accurate world map to date, it divides the globe into 96 triangles, projects them onto a tetrahedron which can then be unfolded into a flat, 96 section, rectangular map. As Foster summed up, "Bucky was one of those rare individuals who fundamentally influenced the way that one comes to view the world [Fuller] was the very essence of a moral conscience, forever warning about the fragility of the planet and our responsibility to protect it [...] His many innovations still surprise one with the audacity of the thinking behind them". After Fuller's death, chemists discovered that the atom's carbon molecule were arrayed in a structure similar to a geodesic dome. In what is perhaps his most fitting epitaph of all, they named the molecule "buckminsterfullerene".
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
First published on 19 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly