He has been called “the first poet of technology,” “the greatest living genius of industrial-technical realization in building,“ “an anticipator of the world to come – which is different from being a prophet,” “a seminal thinker,” and “an inspired child.” But all these encomiums are fairly recent. For most of his life, R. Buckminster Fuller was known simply as a crackpot.
He is also something more than the mere sum of his praise and criticism. He is a throwback to the classic American individualist, a mold which produced Thomas Edison and Thoreau – men with the fresh eye that sees and questions everything anew, and the crotchety mind that refuses to believe there is anything that cannot be done. What Fuller sees excites him with the vision of man’s potentialities, and he has made it his mission to help man realize them. Says he: “Man knows so much and does so little.”
Last week this crackpot stepped off a plane in London, spouting words the minute his feet touched ground, and headed for a dinner in his honor at the Royal Institute of British Architects. On Sunday he went to Bristol for two days of touring and talking, His next stop: Ghana’s University of Science and Technology, which has been waiting a year for his arrival this week to conduct a four-week research and development project.
Today Richard Buckminster Fuller, 68, of Carbondale, Ill. – whose college career never got past his freshman midyears – is famous for houses that fly and bathrooms without water, for cars and maps and ways of living bearing the mysterious word “Dymaxion,” for things called “octet trusses,” “synergetics” and “tensegrity.” But he is best known of all for his massive mid-century breakthrough known as the “geodesic dome.”
Plastic, cardboard, & bamboo
In ten years the famed domes of Bucky Fuller have covered more square feet of the earth than any other single kind of shelter. U.S. Marines have lived and worked in them from Antarctica to Okinawa. Benearth them, radar antennas turn tirelessly along the 4, 5000 miles of DEW line, which guards the North American continent against surprise attack. For eight years, the U.S. has been using Fuller domes to house its exhibits at global trade fairs: they have represented America in Warsaw, Casablanca, Istanbul, Kabul, Tunis, Lima, New Delhi, Accra, Bangkok, Tokyo, Osaka. The Russians were so impressed by the 200-ft.-diameterdome at the 1959 U.S. exhibit in Moscow that they bought it. “Mr. J. Buckingham Fuller must come to Russia and teach our engineers,” garbled Premier Khrushchev.
They are being made of almost anything and everything – polyester fiber glass, alloy aluminum, weatherproofed cardboard, plastic, bamboo. More than 50 companies have taken out licenses to make them in the U.S. alone. The small domes are light enough to be lifted by helicopter, and they practically build themselves. Non-English-speaking Eskimos can put them together in a matter of hours out of color-coded components. The day his company began erecting a geodesic auditorium in Hawaii, Henry J. Kaiser hopped a plane from San Francisco to see the work in progress, but it was finished by the time he got there, and seated 1,832 at a concert the same night.
The weatherproof city
Structurally unlimited as to size, cheap to make, requiring no obstructing columns for support, the geodesic dome uses less structural material to cover more space than any other building ever devised. The diameter of the one built for the Union Tank Car Co. in Baton Rouge is the length of a football field. Next year the Union of South Africa expects to be using geodesic hits for low-cost housing. And within a decade it is quite possible, if Bucky has his way, that cities will roof their centers over with vast translucent domes, beneath which mass air conditioning and weatherproofing will enable houses and stores to be constructed only for privacy and aesthetic delight. Bucky has already proposed one to cover Manhattan from river to river and from 22nd St. to 62nd St., which would soar nearly three-quarters of a mile above the Empire State building, but would contain less steel than the Queen Mary.
[It] had begun where Bucky Fuller likes to begin: with a probe into the pattern of the universe. TO make that probe, Fuller was struggling to develop a new tool – a geometry of energy. In this search for such a geometry, Fuller was using spheres as idealized models of energy fields. Crowding the spheres as close together as possible around a central sphere, he found that instead of forming a still bigger sphere, they made a 14-faced polyhedro – six of the faces in the form of squares, and eight as triangles. Fuller called this figure a vector equilibrium because the outward thrust of its radial vectors is balanced by the restraining force of its circumferential vectors.
Combining a number of vector equilibriums creates a complex of alternating squares and triangles. Dividing the squares once again, he found he had a symmetrical, twenty-sided globe-shaped skin which could be constructed out of tetrahedrons – the triangle-sided pyramid shape that provides the greatest strength for the leas volume (or weight). In a sphere made of such interlocked tetrahedrons, the weight load applied to any point was transmitted widely throughout the structure, producing a phenomenal strength-to-weight ratio. Bucky produced this dome by cutting a hollow sphere in half.
Unlike classic domes, Fuller’s depends on no heavy vaults or flying buttresses to support it. It is self-sufficient as a butterfly’s wing, and as strong as an eggshell. Fuller calls it a geodesic dome because the vertexes of the curved squares and tetrahedrons that form its structure mark the arcs of great circles that are known in geometry as “geodesic.”
Stresses and strains
The geodesic dome, then, is really a kind of benchmark of the universe, what 17th century Mystik Jakob Boehme might call “a signature of God.” It crops up all over nature – in viruses, testicles, the cornea of the eye. And for the time being at least, Bucky Fuller has his signature of God sewed up tight in U.S. patent No. 2,682,235, issued in June 1954. It is almost like having a patent on Archimedes’ principle.