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Buckminster Fuller

A Vision Beyond Engineering

By Richard Weingardt

Back in 1959, the distinguished guest of honor – though standing less than five-and-a-half feet tall with a shiny bald head and patches of white hair – had a commanding, electrifying presence. Before he began his talk he said, "Just call me Bucky." The standing-room-only audience at the University of Colorado was completely enthralled. Though Fuller began his hypnotic, thinking-out-loud talk on art and humankind and engineering and the environment with little fanfare, he immediately became a moving dynamo-on-stage. He captivated listeners with his non-stop gestures and rapid-fire delivery. Many of his words and terms – like synergetics, dymaxion charts, and spaceship earth – we had never heard before.

Richard Buckminster Fuller came to Colorado at the request of Professor Brown, head of the university’s Fine Arts Department and one of Bucky’s long-time friends. As members of Dr. Brown’s 17th century art history class (as a civil engineering student, I was taking this to fulfill one of my humanities requirements), we were his special guests at the event. This presentation by an amazing man – an engineer, mathematician, inventor, architect, philosopher, global thinker, visionary, poet, and cosmologist – was unforgettable.

Labeled a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci and the Thomas Edison of his day, Bucky was one of the key innovators of the 20th century. He was also controversial, a free spirit who became a favorite of the restless youth of the late 1960s and 70s. Fuller was one of society’s first futurists. His work paved the way for many who followed, including Alvin Toffler and Joel Barker.

Though best known in engineering circles as the inventor of the geodesic dome, Fuller’s influence reached much further. Much of his work dealt with exploring and creating synergy, which he found to be a basic principle of all interactive systems. As the developer of the subject he called synergetics – a "geometry of thinking" – he was the person most responsible for popularizing the terms "synergy" and "ecology."
Fuller created what he called "Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science," which anticipates and solves humanity’s problems by providing more and more life support for everyone, with fewer and fewer resources. He coined the phrase "doing more with less." He routinely demonstrated his ideas in "artifacts," tangible prototypes or models of designs and principles. His Dymaxion Map of the World, featured in Life magazine in 1943, was the first in the history of cartography to reveal the whole surface of the earth in a single view. It showed the continents on a flat surface without visible distortion – with earth as one island in one ocean.

Fuller was driven by the belief that humanity’s major problems were hunger and homelessness. He committed himself to solving them through inexpensive and efficient design. He was optimistic that, through research and development, responsible engineering, and increased industrialization, humankind could generate wealth so rapidly that all people could live in peace and prosperity. He said, "Making the world’s available resources serve 100% of an exploding population can only be accomplished by a boldly accelerated design revolution."

Fuller was one of the earliest proponents of renewable energy sources including solar, wind, and wave, which he incorporated into many of his designs. He claimed, "There is no energy crises, only a crisis of ignorance." His research demonstrated that humanity could satisfy 100% of its energy needs while phasing out fossil fuels and atomic energy. In the 1970s, for instance, he showed that a wind generator fitted to every high-voltage transmission tower in the U.S. would generate three-and-a-half times the country’s total power requirement.

A sixth-generation New Englander, R. Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University and the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Navy in World War I. In 1917, he married Anne Hewlett on Long Island, New York. They would have two children and live in many places because of his varied jobs and whims. Shortly after WW-I, Bucky went into the construction business with Anne’s father. In less than ten years, however, poor economic conditions set in and he was forced out of the company.

Despondent over that and other business failures and grieving because one of his young daughters had died unexpectedly, Fuller came to a defining moment in his life. Standing on the banks of icy Lake Michigan in 1927, he resolved to dedicate his energies to the search for socially responsible answers to the world’s problems. Thus began a 56-year experiment to discover what an unknown, penniless individual could do for humanity through effective engineering and design.

His pursuit to develop answers to global problems doing more with less was based on the design principles of nature. It made Fuller the pioneer of whole systems thinking, analysis, and design, which caused him to refer to himself as a "Comprehensive Anticipator" – a "Design Scientist" for "Spaceship Earth."

In 1946, Bucky accepted a position as a professor at Black Mountain College, a small but progressive college in North Carolina. There, he instigated a revolutionary structural design that would make him famous internationally and advance the fields of engineering and architecture. In 1949, he erected the world’s first geodesic dome building. Comprised of a series of tetrahedrons (triangular pyramid shapes), the 14-foot diameter dome was constructed using lightweight aluminum aircraft tubing with a vinyl-plastic skin. It revolutionized the industry’s thinking about the efficiency of structures. To prove his design, Bucky and several of his students who had helped build it would hang daringly from the structure’s framework to awe his non-believers.

Fuller’s geodesic domes are a complex assemblage of triangles in which all structural members contribute equally to the whole, form a spherical shape, and grow stronger as they grow larger. They can sustain their own weight with no practical limits and have the highest ratio of enclosed area to external surface area for any structure. When complete, the structures – especially very large ones – weigh less than their parts because of the air mass inside the dome; when it’s heated warmer than the outside air, it has a net lifting effect like a hot-air balloon.

In 1953, Fuller and his patented geodesic dome were elevated to international prominence when the first conspicuous commercial geodesic dome was constructed. A 90-foot diameter hemisphere enclosed the courtyard of the Ford Motor office building in Dearborn, Michigan, so the area could be used all year around. The originally designed structure, weighing 160 tons, was scrapped because it was too heavy to be supported by the existing building walls and foundations. Fuller’s dome, weighting 8.5 tons became the solution. Plus, it was erected within weeks, so it could be used for the Ford Motor Company’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Media from around the world gathered to report on Ford’s anniversary activities. They marveled at the dome’s construction, and word of Fuller’s deed quickly spread.

Within a few years, Fuller’s domes were showing up everywhere. In 1957, a large geodesic dome for an auditorium in Honolulu, Hawaii was put up so quickly that 22 hours after its parts were delivered, a full-house audience was comfortably seated inside the building enjoying a concert.

Today, more than 500,000 geodesic domes of all types and sizes dot the globe. Notable ones include the 265-foot-wide Epcot Center at Disney World in Florida, a 360-foot-tall dome over a shopping center in downtown Ankara, Turkey, and a 280-foot-high dome enclosing a civic center in Stockholm, Sweden. The world’s largest aluminum dome houses the "Spruce Goose" airplane in Long Beach Harbor, California.
Innumerable plastic and fiberglass "radome" weather stations enclosed delicate radar and sensitive equipment in the Arctic, Antarctic, and other cold regions around the globe, withstanding extreme cold temperatures and winds up to 180 mph. Corrugated metal domes provide low-cost shelter to families in third-world countries. Possibly the most famous geodesic dome of all time was the 20-story dome housing the U.S. Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67.

Content with the impact his geodesic domes were experiencing worldwide and having proved that even his most controversial ideas were practical and workable, Bucky spent the final fifteen years of his life traveling and lecturing on ways to better use the world’s resources. He presented workshops to millions of people, lectured at 550 universities and, in the course of his work, circled the globe more than 50 times. He died in 1983 at age 87.

Fuller was a man ahead of his time, viewed by some as an impractical dreamer and embraced by others as a visionary genius and a brilliant engineer. Even Albert Einstein was prompted to say to him, "Young man, you amaze me!"

Although Bucky maintained he was a comprehensivist interested in almost everything, his life and work were dominated by shelter, housing, and transportation. In the final analysis, Bucky was a dogged individualist who profoundly affected the awareness of the emerging social and environmental potential of humanity, and whose engineering genius continues to be felt worldwide.

A structural engineer, Richard Weingardt heads Richard Weingardt Consultants, an engineering firm in Denver, Colorado. As an author, he has written books on engineering as a profession and writes a column for Structural Engineer magazine.

Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer