This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Today we know R. Buckminster Fuller primarily through his oeuvre of iconic objects and ideas created over the arc of a nearly 90-year life. Born in the last decade of the 19th century, Fuller lived long enough to hang out with Steve Jobs. He’s variously described as a “systems thinker,” perhaps the first “futurist,” a visionary, engineer, geometer, and architect (he won the AIA Gold Medal in 1970). But “inventor” is probably the most accurate description. Historian and writer Alec Nevala-Lee’s 2022 biography, aptly titled Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller (Dey St. Books), tells a nuanced story of the man known for geodesic domes; space frames; “Spaceship Earth”; the Dymaxion map, house, and car; and concepts such as tensegrity, synergy, and “ephemeralization” (“doing everything with nothing at all,” as he described it).
But Fuller’s most substantial, complex invention was Bucky himself, a project that Nevala-Lee covers—in often unflattering ways—over the course of Fuller’s long life. Bucky was inspirational (hippies followed his lead to create Drop City), inscrutable (an editor of one of his many books complained it wasn’t written in English), prodigious (lectures went on for three or more hours; I sat through one), and prolific (he held nearly 30 patents and produced a comparable number of books). But the Fuller that emerges from Nevala-Lee is also a control freak, given to exaggeration, who loathes sharing credit, exploits students as free labor, and is often petty, vindictive, and cruel.
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He was born in 1895 into a New England patrician family, the grand nephew of Margaret Fuller (an early feminist, women’s rights advocate, critic, writer, and Transcendentalist). Born cross-eyed and farsighted, things within his grasp were essentially invisible. Fuller didn’t clearly see his parents’ faces until fitted with glasses at age four. Insubordinate in school, he was admitted to Harvard as a legacy, partied heartily, and was kicked out by his second semester. A temporary stint working in a cotton mill propelled him to give Harvard another try. Readmitted, he bombed academically, and was asked to withdraw. At this point, he moved to New York, worked various odd jobs, had a weakness for cocktails and chorus girls, and ultimately joined a military camp in upstate New York, in anticipation of America’s entry into World War I. He gets married, attends and graduates from the Naval Academy, and sees action as an ensign. Over the next half-dozen years, he works a variety of jobs, mostly in manufacturing.
The Bucky invention project starts in earnest in the late 1920s. Fuller seems to have had some kind of nervous breakdown when he was 32 during a period of job instability; he had resigned as head of the Stockade Midwest Building Company, having previously stepped down as president of the parent company, Stockade Building Systems, a prefab building technology company he founded in 1923 with his father-in-law. In August 1927, Fuller moved to Chicago with his wife, Anne, pregnant with their second daughter (an earlier child, Alexandra, died of pneumonia in 1922). Newly settled, before the end of August Fuller was out as manager of Stockade Midwest, a fact he concealed from his wife. Soon after, his daughter Allegra was born. By November, Fuller was no longer with Stockade. Essentially unemployed and with a family to support, he was hitting the bottle, heavily. He took long walks around the city, thinking about his limited options. Suicide crossed his mind as he wandered along the shore of Lake Michigan one late-November evening, contemplating God and his own existence. What then happened he later described as a “blinding revelation.” God spoke to him: He didn’t have the right to eliminate himself, he belonged to the universe; his significance would be fulfilled if he converted his talents to the advantage of others. The Almighty told him: “You think the truth.” He needn’t seek the assent of others.
For the next 60 years, Fuller followed his own star, and a persistent pattern emerges: a grand idea consumes him, which never quite translates into something lasting. For example, the Dymaxion car from the early 1930s was radical. It had a teardrop shape mounted on a triangular frame to cut wind resistance, featured three wheels (the rear one was used for steering), and a rear-mounted motor. Investors signed on and prototypes were built, but there were serious problems with stability (at high speeds the tail levitated, removing the steering wheel from the road). An overture to collaborate with Henry Ford went nowhere. The Soviet Union expressed interest, but a demonstration ended with a breakdown. Fuller never found a path to production, Nevala-Lee writes, due to “interpersonal conflicts, funding shortfalls, and persistent design issues” that Fuller was unwilling to acknowledge. His own genius blindsided him to the pitfalls of commercial application. He blamed public ignorance and bad luck, and insisted decades later that Dymaxion was “the most stable car in history.”
The arc of this story repeats with variations through Fuller inventions such as the Dymaxion house, the Wichita House, and the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (developed for the U.S. Army in 1941 but never put into full-scale production). The pattern breaks with the geodesic dome, perhaps Fuller’s greatest achievement—although he would eventually loathe being so closely identified with it. In early 1948, Fuller became obsessed with geometry and the transformation of solid shapes along “vector equilibriums” (Nevala-Lee exhibits a sure hand in explaining the complex trajectory of Fuller’s geometric investigations). This is also about the time that architecture and design schools began to court Fuller for visiting professorships and lectures. The mixture of geometry and access to students caused Fuller’s geodesic inventions to blossom, as prototypes were rapidly built by students at Black Mountain College, North Carolina State, Princeton, University of Minnesota, and Cornell, among many other schools. The first commercial geodesic dome covered the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, Michigan in 1952. An article on it in Architectural Forum attracted the attention of a U.S. Army colonel, who saw the geodesic’s potential as shelters for advanced bases that could be airlifted and erected quicker than tents. The military’s use of domes, most prolifically for radar shelters (called “radomes”) led Fuller to found Geodesics Inc., and the invention proliferated.
However, to characterize Fuller as the architect of some of his most famous domes—such as the American Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal—is a mistake. In fact, Fuller’s first design for the pavilion didn’t even include a dome: it was an open, flat-roofed space-frame pavilion with columns. Cambridge Seven Associates’ Peter Chermayeff, whose firm was overseeing the pavilion and had suggested Fuller for the design, had his doubts about an open structure in such a climate. “Let’s do a big dome,” suggested Chermayeff, “a three-quarter sphere, a bubble that would appear to be rising from the ground and give us a great interior space …” Fuller’s reaction? “Peter, I am so tired of being known as the dome man.” But he didn’t mind taking credit for the design, while others worked out the pesky details.
On balance, Nevala-Lee is in Fuller’s corner. The biography of his subject, warts and all, offers a new appreciation of Fuller’s visionary contributions, which made impacts in other realms, such as a new type of molecule. Years after Fuller’s death, a team of scientists studied his work in geodesic geometry in search of a structure for closed molecules. Their investigations led to a discovery they dubbed “buckminsterfullerene,” a molecular structure for carbon with a host of medical, industrial, and commercial applications. They won a Nobel prize.
Nevala-Lee’s book recounts other contemporary contributions to science and invention launched by what Fuller left behind. According to the author, “Fuller perceptively diagnosed the world’s unrealized ability to care for all of its population, and he warned that capitalism favored a concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, leading to a succession of crises—from inequality to climate change—that he foresaw a generation ago.”