Happy 115th, Mr Fuller!
July 12, 2010 2:17 PM   Subscribe

When he was 32, his life seemed hopeless. He was bankrupt and without a job. He was grief stricken over the death of his first child and he had a wife and a newborn to support. Drinking heavily, he contemplated suicide. Instead, he decided decided that his life was not his to throw away: it belonged to the universe. Buckminster Fuller embarked on "an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity." If the architect, author, designer, inventor, and futurist Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller were still alive, he would be 115 years old today. Though he died in 1983, his legacy grows on through recordings of his ideas and the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Bucky did not arise from nothing on his 32nd birthday, but came from a long line of New England Nonconformists, including his great-aunt Margaret Fuller, an American journalist, critic, and women's rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement, who is credited with writing the first major feminist work in the United States. In 1917 Fuller married Anne Hewlett, daughter of James Monroe Hewlett, an architect who had created a modular compressed fiber-block building material. Fuller himself supervised the erection of several hundred houses, but the construction company encountered financial difficulties in 1927 and Fuller was forced out. With the earlier death of his daughter in 1922, and now faced with caring for his wife and a newborn child, It was then that Buckminster Fuller set a goal of making a difference in the world at large.

Though he had no official degree (he entered Harvard on a legacy, but was expelled twice - the first time for consorting with a dance troupe), Bucky started designing systems to address real-world needs and demands with the minimum amount of resources, often in very unconventional ways. One series of efforts started in 1927, with the design of the Dymaxion house. Dymaxion was a combination of three of Bucky's favorite words: DY (dynamic), MAX (maximum), and ION (tension). The first (and only) model was built until 1946, in Wichita, Kansas. It was supposed to cost about $6,500 in 1946, approximately the cost of a high-end automobile. Though it survived a near-miss with a tornado in 1964, the home was later abandoned. It was taken apart in 1992 and over the next eight years, Henry Ford Museum staff researched the house, and cleaned and restored its 3,000 components. On October 24, 2001, the restoration complete and the Dymaxion House was opened to the public.

The Dymaxion line of creations also includes the Dymaxion map and the Dymaxion car (wobbly YT video, featuring Amelia Earhart amongst others). The Dymaxion map was called the Air-Ocean World by Fuller, based on an early effort to optimize air travel based on small connecting flights instead of long trips. The resulting map was a fairly accurate representation of the world, though the earlier Bernard J.S. Cahill butterfly map is considered more accurate. The Dymaxion car was another brainchild of 1927 that was refined for years. Three cars were produced, though only one is known to remain. One was ill-fated, surviving a fatal accident and being restored, only to be accidentally destroyed in a fire, and a second is lost and considered scrapped.

Other items from Fuller with the Dymaxion name include his polyphasic sleep schedule, which he called Dymaxion sleep, as detailed in this 1943 Time magazine article, and the compendium of Fuller's lifetime of work, notes and associated recordings that is known as the Dymaxion Chronofile. In one of his last (lengthy, thought-provoking) public writings, Bucky noted that the "Chronofile" consisted of 750 12" x 10" x 5" volumes in 1981. Originally the Fuller Archives were curated by the Buckminster Fuller Institution, and in 1999 the Fuller archives were transferred to the Stanford University Libraries, where they are housed today. There is a lot of material online, including some fantastic audio, and though it is freely accessible, it requires you sign up for a password. If you're looking for more material, check the Buckminster Fuller Virtual Institute. Warning: heavy use of dated HTML, but the bibliography and itinerary is worth checking out.

Bucky Fuller was not only a scientific mind, but also an artistic one. He is cited as a vague or possibly indirect influence on Warhol, through his painting of Romany Marie's restaurant with shiny aluminum paint. That act inspired Isamu Noguchi (seen here in a Dymanxion car, next to Dorothy Hale) to paint his own studio silver, before Warhol's Factory space turned silver.
posted by filthy light thief (32 comments total) 132 users marked this as a favorite
Oh yeah, I saw a documentary about that guy's balls.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2010 [11 favorites]

Not unknown around these parts, with a memorial post for his 113th birthday amongst the past posts on the blue, it was the early life history of Bucky that sporb posted in a comment that triggered all this info-gathering.

One of the dead-link-riddled previous posts covered an epic 42 hours of lectures by Fuller, covering his work through those last two weeks of January 1975. The "recordings" link from above the break is a 42 minute segment of that whole thing, and this is the Web Archive link for the transcripts with some frames from the video recording, and some of the .RAM files might be retrievable, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2010

Buckminster Fullofhimself.
posted by schmod at 2:34 PM on July 12, 2010

I wish I could favorite harder.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 2:40 PM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Addendum: Dymaxion house at Yesterland ("a theme park on the web") with some great photos. Google's LIFE Magazine image search has more from various Dymaxion structures, though one looks to be a Dymaxion Deployment Unit-type structure, which were more or less converted grain bins. There was also the Dymaxion bathroom that was a modular unit with an interior with no "germ-harboring nooks or crannies". The whole unit was supposed to be something that two workers could carry, and featured Bucky's fog gun shower, which would provide a "one-hour massaging pressure bath [using] only a pint of water."
posted by filthy light thief at 2:43 PM on July 12, 2010

Love, love, love this post. The man was incredibly creative. Thank you!!
posted by zarq at 2:45 PM on July 12, 2010

The moment I realized I loved my boyfriend is when he revealed to me his desire to name his firstborn child "Buckminster Fuller [Lastname]." I think he would be a great model to any child about taking risks, because failure is not something that should be avoided at all costa.
posted by piratebowling at 3:00 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

This post deserves an A++++++++++++++++++. And a lot of gold stars, too.
posted by bearwife at 3:09 PM on July 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Bucky!
posted by goalyeehah at 3:09 PM on July 12, 2010

To clarify:

" Acutely aware of our beings' LIMITATIONS AND ACKNOWLEDGING THE InFiNiTe mystery of the priori UNIVERSE... into which we are born but NEVERTHELESS SEARCHING for A conscious MEANS of hopefully cOMpetent participation by humanity in its own EVOLUTIONARY trending while employing only the uNiQuE advantages inhering EXCLUSIVELY to those inDivedUals how to take and maintain the econOMic initiative in the face of the formidable physical capital and credit advantage of the MASSIVE corporation and political states and deliberately avoiding POLITICAL ties and tactics. while endeavoring by EXPERIMENTS and EXPLORATIONS to EXCITE individuals' AWARENESS and REALIZATION of humanity's, being intent thereby to accomplish prototyped capabilities of,
WHEREBY IN TURN THE wealth AUGMENTING PROSPECTS OF SUCH DESIGN SCIENCE regenerations will both permit and induce
ALL humanity to realize FULL LASTING ECONOMIC AND PHYSICAL SUCCESS plus enjoyment of the Earth without one individual interfering with or being advantage at the EXPENSE of another."

R. Buckminster Fuller - March 2. 1968
posted by philip-random at 3:15 PM on July 12, 2010

My god, it's full of Buckminster Fuller.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:19 PM on July 12, 2010

Jeez, he writes like the timecube guy! :) Also:
Buckminster Fuller embarked on "an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual GENIUS might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.
There, fixed that for you! The rest of us talentless lemmings should probably just continue on and drown in that lake when we become penniless and hopeless, since we're not actually destined for great things.

But seriously, brilliant man and I think his idea of synergetics- of pairing/grouping problems so that the output of one problem is the solution of another- is the kind of political and technological thinking we really need as the increasingly global world gets smaller and smaller. It's clear that we can't go on solving each social problem in isolation but must instead find ways to group seeming problems in symbiotic ways- not forcing solutions into place but letting things happen naturally, and apply a much smaller leverage to create an artificial join of two things in a way that benefits them both intrinsically. I can't think of any US political leader who does this- having instead the kind of short news cycle grandstanding of "tough on ____" and "war on ____" bullshit- and we're so much the poorer for it.

I'm reminded of a story a friend told me from "The Omnivore's Dilemma" about rotating different farm animal groups around the acreage so that the process to revitalize the soil and keep things maximally productive and healthy happened automatically, through the natural processes and drives of the different animals and their food/waste chemistry. A solution like that seems so perfectly Buckminster Fuller, and a model for planning a healthy and vibrant 21st century for life on earth.
posted by hincandenza at 3:29 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It took me two decades to figure out how to lay out the patterns for plydomes. The trick is the sheet of plywood is centered on the edge of the polyhedron or other geodesic.
posted by warbaby at 3:50 PM on July 12, 2010

So many groovy things... love the Dymaxion house, which would only have been cooler with one of these parked out front.

"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." --BF
posted by kinnakeet at 4:05 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

warbaby, thanks for pointing those out. Steve Miller has made a number of domes (no, not that Steve Miller), including a 24-foot plydome that failed under 10" of wet snow, and 42-foot plydome that ended up being 39 feet in diameter, due to some design changes. This Synchronofile page of "lost" inventions of Buckminster Fuller includes plydomes amongst some other really interesting Fuller patents, including an interesting watercraft he patented as rowing needles.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:18 PM on July 12, 2010

When he was 32... it was a very bad year... For blue-blooded girls... of independent means..

when he was 32...
posted by jefflowrey at 4:24 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was fourteen years old in 1975 when I stumbled across a copy of I SEEM TO BE A VERB. That book did things to my way of thinking that nothing else had done and for that I'd like to say: "Now you got me thinking. Thanks, Bucky!"
posted by Ron Thanagar at 4:42 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

"What is often mistermed as plagiarism is more precisely 'talent.' 'Plagiarism' is an ethical off-shoot label of the false property illusion described in our phantom captain chapter." -- BF

Which comes up in relation to tensegrity and the work of his student Kenneth Snelson

"I know Ken terribly well, there were times when people would say Bucky is stealing your things and so forth, he doesn't think so anymore." -- BF (1975)

Snelson appears to have had a somewhat different view in 1990 (though his comments are clearly a lot nicer than mine would have been).

Always reminded me of FLWright, another guy who liked to blather and take advantage of people in positions subservient to him.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:50 PM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

At least as early as 1981, Fuller was warning of catastrophic global warming. He outlined a Utopian vision of ever-increasing efficiency and sustainability that, had anybody paid attention, might have helped to secure a future for our industrial civilization that doesn't horrifically suck.

But here we are, more than thirty years later, still collectively arguing about whether we should think about pricing carbon. Sigh. Thanks for trying, Bucky.
posted by zjacreman at 4:54 PM on July 12, 2010

I once read that a friend of Bucky's said, of the multi-purpose, cramped, low-water-use Dymaxion bathroom and fog-gun shower, "I ain't gonna. I just ain't gonna."

I use this expression to myself about a lot of things, including cryonics, which obviates the need to wander into that thread.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:10 PM on July 12, 2010

In my mind I see Bucky Fuller and Nicola Tesla having a drink together and each daring the other to give the reincarnation wheel another try, but neither is willing to go first.
posted by localroger at 5:24 PM on July 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ah yes, the Bucky Fuller plagiarism thing. Christ. Reminds me of the time I mentioned Robert Anton Wilson to a friend, who said, "The homophobe?" Fuck me, the greatest of great dudes cannot escape the shit-smearing gravity of this idiot fucking planet. I'm off to the movies to watch aliens stabbing humans. Maybe that'll cheer me up.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 6:17 PM on July 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Christ. The dymaxion bathroom sounds like some sort of vogon torture device just by its name alone.

Photos of the thing don't do much to promote its case. In fact, I'm now inclined to believe that Fuller is, in fact, a real-world manifestation of Bloody Stupid Johnson.
posted by schmod at 8:14 PM on July 12, 2010

I'm off to the movies to watch aliens stabbing humans. Maybe that'll cheer me up.

Actually, coming from someone who knows next-to-nothing about Buckminster Fuller, the links to tensegrity upthread are pretty interesting (and not nearly controversial enough to be called
shit-smeared gravity". The letter Snelson wrote to an engineering journal is actually pretty amusing:

I have long been troubled that most people who have heard of "tensegrity" have been led to believe that the structure was a Bucky Fuller invention, which it was not. Of course, we are now in the year 1990 and not 1948 so all of this fades into the dim footnotes of history. There is a line somewhere in a theater piece which goes, "But that was long ago in another land -- and besides, the wench is dead."

Dynamic people with great ideas are allowed to be complex or contradictory.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you seen FullerĀ“s writing style? Brilliant? More like a pompous self-propagandist.

I am no fan of Buckminster Fuller. He helped perpetuate the idea that mathematics was something beyond your reach.

For every young mathematician-to-be that Martin Gardner created, I am sure there was one that Buckminster Fuller knocked down.
posted by vacapinta at 3:20 AM on July 13, 2010

I have mixed feelings about Fuller--I admire the idea of Fuller more than the man himself, I guess. Snelson's remark about claiming authorship through naming is spot on--for example, the geodesic dome was not invented by Fuller. The first "fully" geodesic dome was apparently built--and patented--in 1922 by Walther Bauersfield of the Carl Zeiss optical company. Fuller admired the geometry of the dome, and named it "geodesic" in the late 40s. He apparently developed a mathematical description of the dome's geometry, which he managed to patent in the US in 1954. To paraphrase Snelson, if you name it, it's yours. He certainly was an interesting guy, though, and his popularization of concepts like Spaceship Earth (another idea he did not invent, but managed to appropriate) was important to me growing up.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:53 AM on July 13, 2010

Love the man's imagination. It seems like he was a poet of science.
posted by grubi at 7:28 AM on July 13, 2010

Reminds me of the time I mentioned Robert Anton Wilson to a friend, who said, "The homophobe?"

Wait, WHAT?
posted by grubi at 7:29 AM on July 13, 2010

Here's a link I didn't see above, which I ran across because I wanted to research what Fuller's involvement was with est.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:54 AM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love the guy, but with the same sort of tempered love/hate that I have for Raymond Loewy, another visionary appropriator. It's probably some of the old "woman scorned" feeling, fed by a growing realization that Fuller's great, perfect, world-fixing ideas-that-solve-everything™ are, much like most ideas that solve everything, a little problematic.

There's this great, joyous disconnect in Fuller, who came up with these sort of amazing structures that just...absolutely knock you out, like the domes he popularized, first with industry (RIP Union Tank Car dome), then with walleyed hippies bent on world cohabitation. I was lucky to grow up in an area where people were starting to experiment with underground housing, solar energy and solar heating, as well as communal living and back-to-the-land kitchen farming (I don't think I ever had a canned vegetable or a white egg until I was grown), and when neighbors down the hill had a dome-raising party, I was so completely transfixed by the process that I'm still a little messed-up in the head.

The neighborhood turned out, shirtless hippie dudes and kids and bean counters and women in overalls, the dome kit sat there, all stacked up neatly beside the complicated circular foundation, and everyone pitched in, from hippies to bullet-headed I-Like-Ike employees of the nearby NSA, lubricated on cheap canned beer and the spirit of the moment, and this thing rose up like a gorgeous, magical spiderweb, spun in a spiral from the ground up. The kids all loved it, like it was the world's most impossible jungle gym, and we climbed it right along with the builders, ten...twenty...thirty feet up.

With the color-coded struts dropping into color-coded hubs, until they topped it out, a few hours later, it was just a kind of science that made you feel like the future had arrived. When the pre-cut cladding went on, as fast as they could nail it in place, starting from the apex and working down to the foundation, it just...oh my.

Standing there, inside the thing, like a cathedral of geometry, you just wanted to stay there, forever, like you were in a spaceship heading for somewhere better, and in the late seventies, there had to be somewhere better, where things worked and people cooperated and progress was made, day after lovely day.

"A whole house built in one day," my mother said, "Did you ever see such a thing?"

And it set the bar too high, alas. I tromped back to our dumb ol' log farmhouse, a fixture of Scaggsville Road for two hundred years, and it just seemed tired.

Thing is, well, time was not so kind to the dome. We didn't know its occupants well, but it was right on the miles-long walk from our place to the community pool, and I'd stop there, flush with lust, looking at the place. One of the residents, a girl a bit older than me, would sometimes be at the pool, sitting on the edge while we waited for adult swim to end, with our feet dangling in the blue, and I'd relentlessly harangue her for details, for the report that was supposed to prove that she, in fact, lived in heaven.

"It leaks," she said, twisting her hair. "A lot."

Of course, that couldn't be true. It's the perfect structure!

"When it rains?"

"When it rains, after it rains, when it's really cold out and we have a fire in the woodstove. I think that's actually condensation, but we have to put plastic all over the place."

As it happens, the hubs rust, from all the condensation. The dome leaked from almost every angle. Drywall fell off in doughy sheets, was replaced by expensive redwood planks that turned discolored and black. Every conversation in any part of the dome was heard in every other part of the dome, simultaneously. In desperation, the kids who lived there dug out a hollow under the foundation, boxed in with cardboard appliance boxes, and would take refuge there, to avoid the limitations on privacy.

I, of course, would hear none of it, at least until I started getting interested in alternative architecture, diving into earthships and cob and earthbag and visionary ferrocement, and started to think that maybe there's not just one perfect solution to the problems of the world. All of this is my own failing, of course, but I think some of the love of places like the Dymaxion House is more about the love of the distinct and the inspired than it is about living in what is, for all intents and purposes, a trailer with a bathroom cribbed from airplanes and Airstreams.

And domes, my entry vector in to Fuller and the possible world? I'd clung to my raggedy copy of Shelter, worn almost to shreds by hours spent ensconced on my bunk bed, just paging through and daydreaming, and domes ended up being abandoned even by their most fervent advocates, who finally got fed up with the leaking, the absurd use of space, the complexity, the need for constant, intrusive upkeep, and the sheer waste of the things and recanted their faith (take the time to read the last link, which is disillusioning, but sobering about the real task of constructing the built environment).


Still, sometimes a visionary isn't the prophet of how things ought to be, but rather that they can be something else, with ideas ripe for adaptation, reconception, and exploration, and Fuller's that guy in a nutshell, as disconnected from how people really live and want to live as he was brilliant, just like some other visionaries we could name. As an inventor, he had his ups and downs and more fanciful moments, but I've come to revere him more as a science artist or mathematical poet than as a pragmatist, and in that light, he's still perfect, even now.
posted by sonascope at 9:01 AM on July 13, 2010 [12 favorites]

sonascope - wonderfully worded thoughts, experiences and anecdotes, and fitting of Fuller (from the little I've read in the last months). All these Dymaxion projects were intended to be mass-produced, but ended up being limited-production items. Most Fuller-focused sites say that they were too futuristic, but I imagine that structural flaws and shortcomings also played a role in that.

From what I've read, it seems that Bucky wasn't an architect, a contractor, or a materials engineer, but a big thinker. Doing more with less is great, but you want to make sure that it will do what you want. The Dymaxion home was described as "a bit like living in a dorm room without the relief of the occasional booze up." Not something that would appear on sales brochures, but the truth of cohabitation is not one most people dream about.

But I think that big thinkers are needed to shake things up. Others will come along and make those shaky dreams built on ephemeral foundations into a more sustainable reality.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:22 AM on July 13, 2010

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