In 1927, Richard was a suicidal drunk without a job. He was bankrupt and living in the slums of Chicago. He had been expelled from Harvard twice for bad behavior. The business he started with his father had failed. His daughter died after struggling with complications from polio and spinal meningitis. To say that things were tough is an understatement. It was at this low point in his life that he made a decision to turn his life around. He committed his life to changing the world to the benefit of all humanity. It sounds audacious doesn’t it? You bet it was. But that is exactly what he did.
Over the next 56 years R. Buckminster Fuller would live an extraordinary life that did change the world. If you are unfamiliar with Fuller’s life and his work, I would like to give you a brief introduction to the achievements of a truly fascinating man.
Buckminster Fuller is best known for designing the geodesic dome. Actually, Fuller only popularized the dome which was invented 30 years prior to Fuller’s work. Nevertheless, his contributions to the geodesic dome, including some patents, will probably be the most visible part of Buckminster’s legacy. You know the iconic sphere at Epcot Center? It is also know as Spaceship Earth and is probably the most prominent example of Bucky’s geodesic structures. The thousands of domes in existence are fascinating structures, but they aren’t the most interesting of Fuller’s ideas in my opinion.
There are three words that Buckminster Fuller invented that pretty much sum up his design philosophy. Those words are livingry, tensegrity, and dymaxion. The fact that all three of these words get flagged by spellcheck is by itself a testament to Fuller’s personality as the definition of a non-conformist. If you read his writing you will probably laugh at some of the sentences he concocts. Not only did he make up words, he would write the longest run-on sentences you have ever heard. My point isn’t to ridicule his writing, but to point out that Buckminster had no use for the conventional obstacles that humanity had built around society. When language was insufficient for his purposes he would invent new words. When traditional rules of English limited his ability to explain his ideas, he unapologetically broke the rules. But I digress. Let me get back to the the concepts of livingry, tensegrity, and dymaxion.
Livingry is the opposite of weaponry. Fuller believed that the goal of all professions should be in the support of life. His term for the world is “Spaceship Earth,” a term meant to recognize that our planet has a limited amount of resources. We are hurdling through space without an instruction manual and we need to learn how to best manage life here. Indeed, Fuller was in fact an environmental activist long before that term was perverted into the modern day stereotype.
The word tensegrity is a combination of the words tension and integrity. You may have seen sculptures made of only steel cables and long metal rods. Without any outside support, these structures seem to defy gravity as they rise into the air.
While the word dymaxion comes from “dynamic maximum tension,” it really is just a brand name that Buckminster used for several of his projects including his dymaxion car and the dymaxion house. Buckminster’s ideas about housing and the car were decades ahead of their time. The dymaxion house was designed for energy efficiency. The plan was to make the house easy to ship and assemble on any terrain. The three wheeled dymaxion car was fuel efficient, fast, and seated 11 passengers. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for these inventions and both the dymaxion car and house never went into production. Here’s a video of the dymaxion car in action. Note the amazing turning radius:
Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for many of Fuller’s ideas. He has a great quote that says, “This is the real news of our century. It is highly feasible to take care of all of humanity at a higher standard of living than anybody has ever experienced or dreamt of. To do so without having anybody profit at the expense of another so that everybody can enjoy the whole earth. And it can all be done by 1985.”
Buckminster Fuller died in 1983. His gravestone says “Call me trimtab.” This is a reference to an interview where Fuller observes how a tiny rudder (the trim tab) can change the course of a giant ship. Bucky said “The little individual can be a trim tab…If you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and [change the direction of] the whole big ship…”
If you are interested in learning more about Buckminster Fuller, I encourage you to read his books, especially “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
.” The Buckmister Fuller Institute website is also worth a visit.