Carolyn and I have admired the work of inventor, architect, designer, philosopher, and futurist visionary Buckminster Fuller, who created numerous inventions and architectural designs. He is most well-known for his development of the geodesic dome, and for coining and popularizing the terms “synergetics” and “spaceship earth.”
Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1895. His father was a successful businessman, and he was the grandnephew of journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller. As a child, Fuller suffered from undiagnosed nearsightedness until the age of four, and he was teased by his elder sister Leslie for being “stupid.” Fuller spent much of his youth on Bear Island, off the coast of Maine, where he learned to sail and made tools and other items from materials he found in the woods. By the time he was twelve, he had invented a new system for propelling a rowboat.
Fuller attended the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and in 1913 he was admitted to Harvard College, the undergraduate college of Harvard University. Fuller described himself as a “non-conforming misfit,” and he was expelled from Harvard twice— in 1914 for spending all his tuition money to court showgirls with a vaudeville troupe, and in 1915 for “irresponsibility and lack of interest.”
From 1917 to 1919 Fuller served in the Navy as a shipboard radio operator. In 1917 he married and had a daughter who died in 1922, just before her fourth birthday. Around this time, Fuller became president of a business that sought to provide affordable housing, and in 1927 he lost the job. Fuller became seriously depressed, drank heavily, and he took long walks by himself around Chicago. Fuller began contemplating suicide by drowning himself in Lake Michigan so that his family could benefit from his life insurance policy.
As he was contemplating suicide, Fuller had a profound, life-changing, mystical experience, that would provide direction and purpose for his life. Fuller felt as though he was suspended several feet above the ground and enclosed in a sphere of white light. A voice spoke directly to him and said: “From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”
Fuller said that this experience led to a profound re-examination of his life. He chose to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” In 1927 Fuller resolved to think independently, and to commit himself to “the search for the principles governing the universe, and help advance the evolution of humanity in accordance with them… finding ways of doing more with less, to the end that all people everywhere can have more and more.”
In 1933 Fuller designed a transportation vehicle called a Dymaxion car that was prominently featured in the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. Dymaxion was a word that he coined that blended together the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension,” to sum up his goal of “maximum gain” and “advantage from minimal energy input.” The Dymaxion car’s aerodynamic bodywork was designed for increased fuel efficiency and top speed, and its platform featured a lightweight hinged chassis, rear-mounted V8 engine, front-wheel drive, and three wheels. There were limitations in its handling at high speeds, so it was never mass produced, although Walter Chrysler, Henry Ford, and other car manufacturers were interested in marketing the car.
During the mid-1940s, Fuller also invented the Dymaxion House, which was designed to be an inexpensive, energy-efficient, unusually strong, lightweight, home that had its own power source and was transportable. Fuller also designed a Dymaxion map of the world, which represents the surface of the world on an icosahedron (a polyhedron with 20 faces), which can be unfolded and flattened to two dimensions, and more accurately displays the size and shape of the oceans and continents than traditional flat maps or globes.
Between 1948 and 1949, Fuller taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Although he was shy and withdrawn, Fuller was persuaded to participate in a theatrical performance produced by composer John Cage. During his rehearsals, Fuller broke through his inhibitions, and he became confident as a performer and speaker. It was here at Black Mountain College that Fuller began working on the project for which he is most famous, the development of geodesic domes.
A geodesic dome is a hemispherical structure based on a polyhedron composed of triangles. The triangular elements of the dome are structurally rigid, and they distribute the structural stress throughout the structure, making them unusually strong and able to withstand very heavy loads for their size. Many homes and other buildings have been built using this design, such as military radar stations, civic buildings, and exhibition attractions.
Fuller developed a novel system of mathematics known as “synergetics,” which is used to study systems in transformation, and emphasizes how whole systems generate behaviors that are unpredicted by the components of the system in isolation. Synergetics is interdisciplinary in nature, and it embraces a broad range of scientific and philosophical topics. Fuller’s two-volume work, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, which was published in 1975 and 1979, distills a lifetime of Fuller’s thinking on this complex subject.
Fuller also influenced language and coined many new terms. Fuller invented the words “livingry,” as opposed to “weaponry,” “world-around” instead of “worldwide,” and “sunsight” and “sunclipse,” instead of “sunrise” and “sunset.” He popularized the term “Spaceship Earth,” to promote a worldview that encourages everyone on Earth to act as a harmonious crew that is working toward a greater good. Fuller used the word “Universe” without the word “the” or “a” preceding it, and always capitalized the word, which our late friend Robert Anton Wilson incorporated into many of his books.
Fuller created many other inventions during his lifetime and is the author of more than thirty books. He was awarded 28 U.S. patents, and many of Fuller’s most famous architectural and design works were attempts to leverage technology in service of humanity. Some of his most popular books include Critical Path, Grunch of Giants, and Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In his book Critical Path he demonstrates how the resources on earth are plentiful enough for every human being to be living the lifestyle of a millionaire, if our resources were evenly distributed, and not wasted on weapons and war technology.
Fuller’s philosophy was embraced by the counterculture, and he was a hero to many in the alternative spiritual communities during the 1980s. I met Fuller twice during this time. In 1981 I asked Bucky to write something in my personal journal, that I had named Amazing Days. Bucky wrote, “To David, all days are amazing!”
Fuller died in 1983, shortly before his 88th birthday. During the period that led up to his death, his wife had been comatose in a Los Angeles hospital, dying of cancer. While visiting her he suddenly said excitedly, “She is squeezing my hand!” Fuller then stood up, had a heart attack, and died an hour later. Then his wife died thirty-six hours later. They are buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1996 the Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to the chemists who discovered a molecule that they called Buckminsterfullerene or Buckyball, after Fuller, due to its structural similarity to the geodesic domes that Fuller designed. In 2004, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp honoring Fuller on the 50th anniversary of his patent for the geodesic dome, which replicated the cover of the 1964 issue of Time magazine about Fuller’s work.
Some of the quotes that Buckminster Fuller is known for include:
Dare to be naïve.
I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing— a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process— an integral function of the universe.
We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist.
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty… but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious” becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.
In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.
Mistakes are great, the more I make the smarter I get.