BUCKMINSTER FULLER WAS HERE FIRST
Geodesic domes are inexpensive, efficient, well-researched, aesthetically pleasing and have a multi-generation support base. And so the question has to be asked: where are the domes? If Fuller’s Dymaxion car was as much of a marvel as it was said to be, why aren’t we all driving one? The future that Fuller predicted seems invisible, but take another look and you’ll see we’ve arrived and right on schedule.
Richard Buckminster Fuller was born on July 12th 1895. He was born at a time when what was changing the world the most was also what was invisible; radio waves, x-rays. Increasingly, more was being done with less. Fuller came to call this process of doing more with less ‘ephemeralization.’
Ephemeralization was a central theory to Fuller’s work. When Fuller was a boy many tons of copper wire were required to lay a transoceanic telephone cable. When he was a man, the amount of communication formerly requiring tons of copper could occur using only the few ounces of copper wire found in a geostationary satellite. The way every generation of computers is smaller than the prior, yet does more, also fits Fuller’s model. Computers have gone from occupying the floor of a building, to the corner of an office, to part of desktop, to a laptop, to a smartphone, to a smartwatch, and the trajectory of smaller-yet-smarter has not stopped yet.
Fuller experimented with maintaining his health in ways that have become commonplace. Fuller noticed that dogs never seemed to be tired, and so he studied how they sleep. He learned that dogs sleep for short periods of time but often. He tried it himself and learned that he could get by on four hours of sleep a day if those four hours were spread out over the entire day. Fuller called it Dymaxion sleep but it is now known as polyphasic sleep.
The height of young Fuller’s experiment in the bohemian lifestyle occurred in 1920s Chicago, home of many other eccentrics and luminaries. Fuller wore t-shirts in public when that was unprecedented. He puzzled his friends by inviting them to join what he called the Dog Trot Club. Fuller would wear clothing usually confined to the gymnasium but wear it in public. He would exercise on his own, not as part of a sports team. He proceeded at a pace that was not walking but also was not quite running, and he would do so throughout the city instead of on tracks. He called this dog trotting, but seventy years later we call it jogging.
As an adult Fuller put on a great deal of weight. He reasoned (in his own way) that the best way to take off the fat was to take in the most efficient form of energy instead. The most efficient form of energy was the energy of the sun, concentrated into the energy of grass, concentrated into the energy of a cow, concentrated into the energy of a steak. For many years Fuller he ate primarily steak and tea. He never gave a name to his highly successful weight loss program but today we would call it the Atkins Diet.
Fuller documented his own life from an early age. He called the record of his life the Chronofile, a chronological record of his day to day life. The Chronofile weighs 4.5 tonnes and is currently housed in Stanford University. At the time Fuller was derided for the self-importance of keeping such a detailed record of his own life. But today millions of people do just the same via Facebook, Twitter and the like.
While Fuller died too early to take advantage of the Internet, he did make use of what technology was available. He bought the global rights to the work “BUCKY” as an address for telegrams. I am confident every person reading this essay has their own personalized global address; we just have them over half a century after Fuller did. Fuller was also prone to wearing three watches at a time: one with the time of where he was at, one with the time of where he was going, and one with the time on Bear Island. Modern watches have this feature built in.
In 1929 Fuller presented the Dymaxion house. This was a hexagon shaped house suspended from a central pole, with a tension structure of wires that held up the walls. The Dymaxion house was designed to be delivered unassembled by air, and to be as easy to disassemble and relocate as it was to assemble. The Dymaxion house was novel in nearly every way, but what distinguished it most was that it was among the first in what to was to be a housing industry. Fuller used an analogy to explain the difference between housing and a housing industry. He asked: what if automobiles were constructed the way houses are constructed today?
First one would select either a local automotive manufacturer or a standard design. The styles offered would generally be fifty or more years out of date, perhaps including a horse and buggy. Before construction of the automobile could begin, all the necessary permits from the local government would have to be obtained, and these on a case-by-case basis. If you were lucky and patient then construction of your automobile could begin several months after filing the paperwork. Metal workers, welders, upholsterers, glass workers, painters and more – all from different unions – would show up at your house every day to work on your automobile. Again, with luck and patience you might have a finished vehicle as soon as several years after filing the paperwork. All this seems absurd, but we have grown to accept it as a method of building houses. Fuller wanted shelters to be produced as cars are produced: on the industrial level.
And 80 years later, in 2008 the NY office of emergency management held a contest titled “What if NYC.” The goal was to design a superior form of shelter. The winning design was a hexagon shaped house that was to be delivered unassembled by air, and to be as easy to disassemble and relocate as it was to assemble. Fuller’s name was not mentioned.
The Dymaxion House demanded a new delivery system, which Fuller originally called the Omnidirectional Plummeting Device. This device was to function as both a land and air vehicle. When the production model abandoned its wings it became known as the Dymaxion Car.
The Dymaxion Car was conceived during the Great Depression. Over one thousand men applied for the twenty-eight available jobs. Fuller hired based on when the man last ate regularly and size of his family. As the first Dymaxion Car approached completion, work slowed. Fuller learned his crew was afraid they would be out of work, so he immediately set them to work again building the second Dymaxion Car. Today we would call this a “sustainable” form of production, one that employs economic justice.
The first Dymaxion Car was completed July 12 1933, Fuller’s thirty-eigth birthday. It got thirty miles to the gallon and could reach one hundred and twenty miles an hour. When the Dymaxion Car ran in an exhibition at a Bronx race track, this passenger car doubled the standing speed record of local race cars. Part of the secret of its success was the chassis was built with holes, modeled after boats and airplanes rather than tanks and buggies like most automobiles. And for all that, the Dymaxion Car had three wheels instead of four.
The Dymaxion Car drew a crowd wherever it went, and sometimes unwelcome attention. A Chicago commissioner of parks attempted to race the Dymaxion Car on the open road, and when his car could not keep up, he ran the Dymaxion Car off the road. The local press blamed the ‘freak’ three-wheeled car instead of the local official. A second and third car were completed, but the Great Depression and unearned bad publicity closed the Dymaxion Car factory. Today we ride in high-speed cars with disc breaks, air conditioning, cars that incorporate wind-tunnel testing – just like Fuller’s car from approaching a century ago – only not called Dymaxion Cars.
In 1937 Fuller introduced the Dymaxion Map. The Dymaxion Map was an attempt to show the entire Earth land mass at once, with a minimum of distortion. It took thirty-one more years before the Apollo program gave us our first photograph of the Earth, and even then only half was visible. In 1952 he suggested the Geosphere, a large globe with computerized lights that could show “social navigation” of people, goods and services. Google caught up fifty-two years later with Google Earth.
The wireless transmission of information to electronic displays is a given fact of life for most Americans. It is nearly inescapable. But consider how a prediction of just that must have sounded in Fuller’s 1938 book “Nine Chains to the Moon: “The main system of general education instruction to go on the air and screen.”
In 1939 Fuller produced the Dymaxion Bathroom, a single-piece shower of a sort common to many homes.
If Fuller is known at all, it is for the popularization of the geodesic dome in architecture. Between 1954 and his death in 1983 over three hundred thousand domes were built. Among them were several significant prototype domes designed by the United States Marine Corp; the Montreal World’s Fair Biosphere dome (inaugurated on July 12 1967, Fuller’s seventy-second birthday); and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line domes.
Fuller worked with many students, many of whom put his ideas into practical use in ways Fuller never imagined. One of them is Sam Lanahan, whose Flextegrity work is attracting the interest of inventors and investors around the world. Another was a graduate student named Bruce LeBel. LeBel studied under Fuller in college, then became the production engineer for a camping firm named North Face. North Face tents are tension-based domes, light, and produced on an industrial scale – everything Fuller said a modern shelter should be, just decades after he said it.
In 1982 Fuller visited EPCOT at Walt Disney World. He saw the EPCOT sphere, a large and attractive geodesic structure, but was put off to see no mention of his name. Just at that moment a jet plan flew overhead. Fuller thought to himself ‘well, they don’t call that a Wright Brothers 747.’ He knew his ideas were in play, and if his name had not stayed in circulation with his ideas then he could still be satisfied.
Fuller was concerned with shelter, recycling, clean air, hyper efficiency, multi-environment structures, transportation, international cooperation. He was concerned with these things as early as the first decades of the Twentieth Century, but had to wait until the Apollo program to see them all come together. As Fuller said, “The answer to the housing problem lies on the way to the moon.”
Today we may not give credit to Fuller for the way we communicate and present ourselves, but he was living an early 21st Century life long before most of us alive today were born.
– Trevor Blake
Trevor Blake is the author of “Buckminster Fuller Bibliography.”