“The word tensegrity is an invention: it is a contraction of tensional integrity.”Buckminster Fuller, cited on the Synergetics Dictionary
Tensegrity refers to structurally sound constructions that feature a radical separation of compression and tension. Generally the compression members are wooden or metal struts, while the tensional members are cables, rubber bands, string or steel wires. Tensegrity structures are admired as with gossamer tendons or struts, their solid struts seem almost magically suspended in air.
Fuller, was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA in 1948. Fuller and Snelson met. Snelson told Coplans: “Bucky was… talking of tension and compression… I started to think of something like a swinging pendulum sculpture. The sculpture consisted of a succession of forms: the lower one supporting the upper one and suspended by a girth of thread. It is slung and the sculpture moves like a spinal column; the form is very flexible. I did two or three sculptures like this and then it occurred to me that to remove the mobility would be a curious thing. I would then have these units separated from one another and retained rigidly in space if I tied the strings in a different manner. The only difference is that both compression members are completely free of one another. It has no top, bottom or sides, and could be placed into orbit.”
The term itself was coined by Buckminster Fuller as a portmanteau of “tension” and “integrity” in 1955.
Since then tensegrity’s innovative approach has been found in nature, and to have applications to cellular biology, anatomy, dynamic control systems, foldable models, social systems, and robotics. Fuller intuited the broad applicability of tensegrity and though he only began investigating it in the Sixties, by the time he wrote Synergetics in the Seventies he would claim that Tensegrity was the underlying principle of all his work and the Universe itself.
Both Fuller and Snelson continued to work on tensegrity throughout their careers.
The following sections are from Synergetics, and you can see Bucky’s focus on the tensional aspect:
700.011 The word tensegrity is an invention: it is a contraction of tensional integrity. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder.
700.02 The integrity of the whole structure is invested in the finitely closed, tensional-embracement network, and the compressions are local islands. Elongated compression tends to deflect and fail. Compressions are disintegrable because they are not atomically solid and can permit energy penetration between their invisibly amassed separate energy entities. As a compression member tends to buckle, the buckling point becomes a leverage fulcrum and the remainder of the compression member above acts as a lever arm, so that it becomes increasingly effective in accelerating the failure by crushing of its first buckled-in side. The leverage-accelerated penetration brings about precessional dispersal at 90 degrees.
700.03 Tension structures arranged by man depend upon his purest initial volition of interpretation of pure principle. Tension is omnidirectionally coherent. Tensegrity is an inherently nonredundant confluence of optimum structural-effort effectiveness factors.
700.04 All structures, properly understood, from the solar system to the atom, are tensegrity structures. Universe is omnitensional integrity.