Throughout his life, Fuller was concerned with the question "Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?" Considering himself an average individual without special monetary means or academic degree, he chose to devote his life to this question, trying to identify what he, as an individual, could do to improve humanity's condition, which large organizations, governments, and private enterprises inherently could not do.
Pursuing this lifelong experiment, Fuller wrote more than thirty books, coining and popularizing terms such as "Spaceship Earth", ephemeralization, and synergetics. He also worked in the development of numerous inventions, chiefly in the fields of design and architecture, the best known of which is the geodesic dome. Carbon molecules known as fullerenes or buckyballs were named for their resemblance to geodesic spheres.
Late in his life, after working on his concepts for several decades, Fuller achieved considerable public visibility. He travelled the world giving lectures, and received numerous honorary doctorates. Most of his inventions, however, never made it into production. Often dismissed as a hopeless utopian, he was strongly criticized in most fields he tried to influence, including architecture. His proponents, on the other hand, continue to assert that his work has not yet received the attention that it deserves.
Fuller was sent to Milton Academy, in Massachusetts, and then began studying at Harvard, but was expelled from the university twice: first for entertaining an entire dance troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his "irresponsibility and lack of interest". By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment. Many years later, however, he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Between his sessions at Harvard, Fuller worked in Canada as a mechanic in a textile mill, and later as a labourer in the meat-packing industry. He also served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, as a shipboard radio operator, as an editor of a publication, and as a crash-boat commander. After discharge, he returned to the meat packing industry, where he acquired management experience. In 1917, he married Anne Hewlett. In the early 1920s, he and his father-in-law developed the Stockade Building System for producing light-weight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing – although the company would ultimately fail. In 1927, at the age of 32, bankrupt and jobless, living in inferior housing in Chicago, Illinois, Fuller lost his young daughter Alexandra to complications from polio and spinal meningitis. He felt responsible, and this drove him to drink and to the verge of suicide. At the last moment, he decided instead to embark on "an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity".
By 1928, Fuller was living in Greenwich Village and spending a lot of time at Romany Marie's, where he had spent a fascinating evening in conversation with Marie and Eugene O'Neill several years earlier. Fuller took on the interior decoration of the café in exchange for meals, giving informal lectures several times a week, and models of the Dymaxion house were exhibited at the café. Isamu Noguchi appeared on the scene in 1929 –Constantin Brâncuşi, an old friend of Marie's, had directed him there – and Noguchi and Fuller were soon collaborating on several projects, including the modelling of the Dymaxion car. It was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.
Fuller taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the summers of 1948 and 1949, serving as its Summer Institute director in 1949. There, with the support of a group of professors and students, he began work on the project that would make him famous and revolutionize the field of engineering: the geodesic dome. One of the early models was first constructed in 1945 at Bennington College in Vermont, where he frequently lectured. In 1949, he erected the world’s first geodesic dome building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. It was 4.3 meters (14 ft) in diameter and constructed of aluminium aircraft tubing and a vinyl-plastic skin, in the form of a tetrahedron. To prove his design, and to awe non-believers, Fuller hung from the structure’s framework with several students who had helped him build it. The U.S. government recognized the importance of the discovery, and employed him to make small domes for the army. Within a few years there were thousands of these domes around the world.
For the next half-century, Fuller contributed a wide range of ideas, designs and inventions to the world, particularly in the areas of practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation. He documented his life, philosophy and ideas scrupulously in a daily diary (later called the Dymaxion Chronofile), and in twenty-eight publications. Fuller financed some of his experiments with inherited funds, sometimes augmented by funds invested by his collaborators, one example being the Dymaxion Car project.
International recognition came with the success of his huge geodesic domes in the 1950s. Fuller taught at Washington University in St. Louis in 1955, where he met James Fitzgibbon, who would become a close friend and colleague. From 1959 to 1970, Fuller taught at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Beginning as an assistant professor, he gained full professorship in 1968, in the School of Art and Design. Working as a designer, scientist, developer, and writer, he lectured for many years around the world. he collaborated at SIU with the designer John McHale. In 1965 Fuller inaugurated the World Design Science Decade (1965 to 1975) at the meeting of the International Union of Architects in Paris, which was, in his own words, devoted to "applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity".
Fuller believed human societies would soon rely mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar- and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of "omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity".
Fuller was awarded 28 US patents and many honorary doctorates. On January 16, 1970, he received the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects, and also received numerous other awards.
Richard Buckminster Fuller died on July 1, 1983, at the age of 87, a guru of the design, architecture, and 'alternative' communities, such as Drop City, the community of experimental artists to whom he awarded the 1966 "Dymaxion Award" for "poetically economic" domed living structures. In the period leading up to his death, his wife had been lying comatose in a Los Angeles hospital, dying of cancer. It was while visiting her there that he exclaimed, at a certain point: "She is squeezing my hand!" He then stood up, suffered a heart attack and died an hour later. His wife died 36 hours after he did. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Buckminster Fuller was one of the first to propagate a systemic worldview, and he explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design. He cited François de Chardenedes' view that petroleum, from the standpoint of its replacement cost out of our current energy "budget" (essentially, the net incoming solar flux), had cost nature "over a million dollars" per U.S. gallon (US$300,000 per litre) to produce. From this point of view, its use as a transportation fuel by people commuting to work represents a huge net loss compared to their earnings.
Fuller was concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system, yet remained optimistic about humanity's future. Defining wealth in terms of knowledge, as the "technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life," his analysis of the condition of "Spaceship Earth" led him to conclude that at a certain time in the 1970s, humanity had marked an unprecedented watershed. He was convinced that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of key recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had reached a critical level, such that competition for necessities was no longer necessary. Cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy. "Selfishness," he declared, "is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable.... War is obsolete.
Fuller also claimed that the natural analytic geometry of the universe was based on arrays of tetrahedra. He developed this in several ways, from the close-packing of spheres and the number of compressive or tensile members required to stabilize an object in space. One confirming result was that the strongest possible homogeneous truss is cyclically tetrahedral.
His technologically oriented point of view can also be taken as a metaphor for what it is to be human generally. In his 1970 book I Seem To Be a Verb, he wrote: "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."
A geodesic sphere and its dual.
"....I found a similar situation to be existent in World War II. As head mechanical engineer of the U.S.A. Board of Economic Warfare I had available to me copies of any so-called intercepts I wanted. Those were transcriptions of censor-listened-to intercontinental telephone conversations, along with letters and cables that were opened by the censor and often deciphered, and so forth. As a student of patents I asked for and received all the intercept information relating to strategic patents held by both our enemies and our own big corporations,..."
Supporting this view, an examination of the design by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld's geodesic design for the Zeiss Planetarium, reveals that it is an exact duplicate of Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Dome Patent.
Their construction is based on extending some basic principles to build simple tensegrity structures (tetrahedron, octahedron, and the closest packing of spheres), making them lightweight and stable. The patent for geodesic domes was awarded in 1954, part of Fuller's exploration of nature's constructing principles to find design solutions. The Fuller Dome is referenced in the Hugo Award winning novel Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, where a geodesic dome is said to cover the entire island of Manhattan, but, due to hot-air balloon effect of the large air-mass under the dome, (and perhaps its construction of lightweight materials), it floats on air.
Previously, Fuller had designed and built prototypes of what he hoped would be a safer, aerodynamic Dymaxion car ("Dymaxion" is contracted from DYnamic MAXimum tensION, however it has also been reported that the name is a combination of the words dynamic, maximum, and ion, per the National Automobile Museum) He worked with professional colleagues over a period of three years beginning in 1932. Based on a design idea Fuller had derived from aircraft, the three prototype cars were different from anything on the market. They had three wheels, with two (the drive wheels) in front, and the third, rear wheel being the one that was steered. The engine was in the rear, with the chassis and the body being original designs. The aerodynamic, somewhat tear-shaped body (which in one of the prototypes was about long), was large enough to seat 11 people. It resembled a melding of a light aircraft (without wings) and a Volkswagen van of 1950s vintage. The car was essentially a mini-bus in each of its three trial incarnations, and its concept long predated the Volkswagen Type 2 mini-bus conceived in 1947 by Ben Pon.
Despite its length, and due to its three-wheel design, the Dymaxion Car turned on a small radius and parked in a tight space quite nicely. The prototypes were efficient in fuel consumption for their day. Fuller poured a great deal of his own money into the project, in addition to funds from one of his professional collaborators. An industrial investor was also keenly interested in the concept. Fuller anticipated the car could travel on an open highway safely at up to about 160 km/h (100 miles per hour). Due to some concept oversights, they were unruly above 80 km/h (50 mph), and difficult to steer. Research ended after one of the prototypes was involved in a collision resulting in a fatality.
In 1943, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser asked Fuller to develop a prototype for a smaller car, and Fuller designed a five-seater which never went beyond development.
Another of Fuller's ideas was the alternative-projection Dymaxion map. This was designed to show the Earth's continents with minimum distortion when projected or printed on a flat surface.
Fuller's energy-efficient and low-cost Dymaxion House garnered much interest, but has never gone into production. Here the term "Dymaxion" is used in effect to signify a "radically strong and light tensegrity structure". One of Fuller's Dymaxion Houses is on display as a permanent exhibit at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. Designed and developed in the mid-1940s, this prototype is a round structure (not a dome), shaped something like the flattened "bell" of certain jellyfish. It has several innovative features, including revolving dresser drawers, and a fine-mist shower that reduces water consumption. According to Fuller biographer Steve Crooks, the house was designed to be delivered in two cylindrical packages, with interior color panels available at local dealers. A circular structure at the top of the house was designed to rotate around a central mast to use natural winds for cooling and air circulation.
Conceived nearly two decades before, and developed in Wichita, Kansas, the house was designed to be lightweight and adapted to windy climes. It was to be inexpensive to produce and purchase, and easily assembled. It was to be produced using factories, workers and technologies that had produced World War II aircraft. It was ultramodern-looking at the time, built of metal, and sheathed in polished aluminum. The basic model enclosed 90 m² (1000 square feet) of floor area. Due to publicity, there were many orders in the early Post-War years, but the company that Fuller and others had formed to produce the houses failed due to management problems.
In 1969 Fuller began the Otisco Project, named after its location in Otisco, New York. The project successfully developed and demonstrated concrete spray technology used in conjunction with mesh covered wireforms as a viable means of producing large scale, load bearing spanning structures built in situ without the use of pouring molds, other adjacent surfaces or hoisting..
The initial construction method used a circular concrete footing in which anchor posts were set. Tubes cut to length and with ends flattened were then bolted together to form a duodeca-rhombicahedron (22 sided hemisphere) geodesic structure with spans ranging to . The form was then draped with layers of ¼” inch wire mesh attached by twist ties. Concrete was then sprayed onto the structure, building up a solid layer which, when dried, would support additional concrete to be added by a variety of tradition means. Fuller referred to these buildings as monolithic ferroconcrete geodesic domes. The tubular frame form proved to problematic when it came to setting windows and doors.and was abandoned The second method used iron rebar set vertically in the concrete footing and then bent inward and welded in place to create the dome’s wireform structure and preformed satisfactorily. Domes, up to 3 stories tall built with this method proved to be remarkably strong. Other shapes such as cones, pyramids and arches proved equally adaptable.
The project was enabled by a grant underwritten by Syracuse University and sponsored by US Steel (rebar), the Johnson Wire Corp, (mesh) and Portland Cement Company (concrete). The ability to build large complex load bearing concrete spanning structures in free space would open many possibilities in architecture, and is considered as one of Fuller’s greatest contributions.
Fuller's development of the dome and his roles as a philosopher and as a gadfly within the design and architectural communities left an important legacy. He introduced a number of concepts, and if every one wasn't entirely new, we can still say that he honed each one well.
More than 500,000 geodesic domes have been built around the world. Some notable ones include the 80.8-meter (265 ft) wide Spaceship Earth at Disney World's Epcot Center in Florida, a 109.7-meter (360 ft) tall dome over a shopping center in downtown Ankara, Turkey, and a 85.3-meter (280 ft) high dome enclosing a civic center in Stockholm, Sweden. The world’s largest aluminum dome formerly housed the “Spruce Goose” airplane in Long Beach Harbor, California. However, domes are not an everyday sight in most places. Contrary to initial hopes, in practice, most of the smaller owner-built geodesic structures had drawbacks (see geodesic domes). As a home, many people have been put off by the domes' unconventional appearance.
An interesting spin-off of Fuller's dome-design conceptualization was the Buckminster Ball, which was the official FIFA approved design for footballs (soccer balls), from their introduction at the 1970 World Cup until recently. The design was essentially a "Geodesic Sphere", consisting of 12 pentagonal and 20 hexagonal panels. This was used continuously for 34 years until it was replaced by a 14-panel version in the 2006 World Cup.
While an envisioned widespread and common adoption of geodesic domes is yet to materialize, Fuller's ideas, teachings, and attitude to life and creativity, in combination, have prodded designers and engineers. What Fuller accomplished, in that sense, was to make professionals and students think "outside the box"; to question convention. Fuller was followed (historically) by other designers and architects (for example, Sir Norman Foster and Steve Baer) willing to explore the possibilities of new geometries in the design of buildings, not based on conventional rectangles. The English writer, playwright, and philosopher John Dryden wrote something quite relevant to the pioneering forays of Fuller still to be brought to full result: "We must beat the iron while it is hot, but we may polish it at leisure."
The words "down" and "up", according to Fuller, are awkward in that they refer to a planar concept of direction inconsistent with human experience. The words "in" and "out" should be used instead, he argued, because they better describe an object's relation to a gravitational center, the Earth. "World-around" is a term coined by Fuller to replace worldwide. The general belief in a flat Earth died out in the Middle Ages, so using wide is an anachronism when referring to the surface of the Earth — a spheroidal surface has area and encloses a volume, but has no width. Fuller held that unthinking use of obsolete scientific ideas detracts from and misleads intuition. The terms sunsight and sunclipse are other neologisms, according to Allegra Fuller Snyder, collectively coined by the Fuller family, replacing sunrise and sunset in order to overturn the geocentric bias of most pre-Copernican celestial mechanics. Fuller also coined the phrase Spaceship Earth, and coined the term (but did not invent) tensegrity.
His concepts and buildings include: