Richard Buckminster Fuller may have been forced out of Harvard twice, but that’s just a bookmark in his accomplished career as an architect, author, inventor, theorist, engineer, and more.
“Hailed as ‘one of the greatest minds of our times,’ R. Buckminster Fuller was renowned for his comprehensive perspective on the world’s problems. For more than five decades, he developed pioneering solutions that reflected his commitment to the potential of innovative design to create technology that does ‘more with less’ and thereby improves human lives,” Fuller’s biography on the Buckminster Fuller Institute webpage (www.bfi.org) reads.
Born on July 12, 1895 in Milton, Mass. to Richard Buckminster Fuller and Caroline Wolcott Andrews, Fuller came from a family of free thinkers and revolutionaries and was the grandnephew of American Transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, one of the first women’s rights advocates.
Fuller attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and often summered in Bear Island, Maine. Though he had trouble understanding abstractions and geometry in school, he often tinkered with constructing things and experimented with designing various inventions. These early experiences helped foster an interest in design and a familiarity with materials.
Fuller began to study at Harvard University in 1913. He was expelled from Harvard for bad behavior and irresponsibility, then began to work at a mill in Canada. He was readmitted to Harvard in 1915, but was again expelled. Fuller’s later accomplishments in technology, engineering and design earned him more than 40 honorary degrees from a variety of institutions.
Fuller married Anne Hewlett in 1917 and also began service in the U.S. Navy. Fuller was nominated to receive officer training at the U.S. Naval Academy after inventing an apparatus to remove downed airplanes from water. Fuller left the Navy in 1919 and began to work with his father-in-law, James Monroe Hewlett. They developed a new method of producing reinforced concrete buildings, called the Stockage Building System. In 1926, Hewlett and Fuller patented the invention, though the company would eventually fail. An even greater loss, the death of Alexandra, Fuller’s young daughter, from polio and spinal meningitis, forced him into a period of self-reflection and reclusion.
Fuller emerged from his depression with a strong desire to use technology to revolutionize construction and improve housing. In 1927, he built an easily constructed, air-delivered, modular apartment building, and designed the Dymaxion House, an inexpensive, mass-produced home that could be airlifted to its location.
“The word [Dymaxion] became synonymous with his design philosophy of ‘doing more with less,’ a phrase he later coined to reflect his growing recognition of the accelerating global trend toward the development of more efficient technology,” Fuller’s biography says.
Fuller went on to invent the Dymaxion Car, a streamlined, three-wheeled automobile, a Dymaxion Bathroom, and Dymaxion Deployment Units (DDUs), mass-produced houses used during World War II.
The first geodesic dome form was constructed as a planetarium by Walther Bauersfeld, but was largely popularized and expanded upon by Fuller. Fuller applied for a patent for the geodesic dome in 1951 and received it in 1954. Geodesic domes epitomize the principles Fuller most deeply cared about: they are lightweight, cost-effective, and easy to assemble. The geodesic system is comprised of a sphere divided into equal triangles so that the surface structure of a dome can be more easily made; and they enclose more space without supporting columns than any other structure. Geodesic domes are extremely effective at distributing stress, allowing them to withstand extremely harsh conditions.
The first commercial dome was designed in 1953 for the Ford Motor Company. The U.S. military became one of Fuller’s biggest clients, using lightweight domes to cover radar stations at installations around the Arctic Circle. In 1959, his first “continuous tension – discontinuous compression” geodesic dome was constructed at the University of Oregon Architecture School. Continuous tension – discontinuous compression structures featured single force compression members that did not touch each other and were ‘suspended’ by the tensional members. According to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, today there are more than 300,000 geodesic domes around the world, ranging from playground structures to shelters in California and Africa and radar stations in remote locations.
Fuller’s Otisco Project developed concrete spray technology used with mesh covered wireforms. The project developed viable means of producing large scale, load-bearing spanning structures built on site without the use of conventional methods, such as pouring molds.
During his lifetime Fuller also patented a variety of truss designs, the design for an undersea island called “Submarisle,” Aspension (a suspension building), a hanging storage shelf unit, water needles for rowing and many more.
Fuller had a diverse list of significant accomplishments. In addition to his engineering achievements, he published Shelter magazine during the 1930s, was a science and technology consultant for Fortune magazine and taught and lectured at universities, including Harvard and MIT. In 1946, Fuller received a patent for the Dymaxion Map, which depicted the entire planet on a single flat map without distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the continents that can be reconfigured to put different regions at the center. This invention was intended to help humanity address the world’s problems better by prompting people to think comprehensively about the planet. During the 1950s he became a professor at Southern Illinois University (SIU), and he and his wife lived in a geodesic dome. In 1972, he was named World Fellow in Residence to a consortium of universities in Philadelphia, including the University of Pennsylvania. In 1961, Fuller received a one-year appointment to the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard. In 1983, shortly before his death, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, citing that his “contributions as a geometrician, educator, and architect-designer are benchmarks of accomplishment in their fields.”
Fuller died in Los Angeles on July 1, 1983. His daughter, Allegra, went on to become founder, first president and now board member emeritus of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which is dedicated to accelerating the development and deployment of solutions that radically advance human wellbeing and the health of our planet’s ecosystems, and “to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity.”
Christina M. Zweig is a contributing editor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.