The Dymaxion Man

Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

R. Buckminster Fuller was born on July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. Fuller was an inventor, architect, designer, theorist, teacher, and practical philosopher dedicated to creating a more sustainable planet in favour of all humanity. He “worked as a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty”.  
Fuller was most known for his mentality of making “more with less”, reflected in all of his designs, including the efficient Dymaxion House and Geodesic Domes.
His desire to be an inventor was prompted by his realization that “the way the world managed its human and material resources needed to be radically rethought”. Throughout his career, Fuller obtained 27 patents, 47 honorary doctorate degrees, and authored 27 books. He also received the United State’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for “contributions as a geometrician, educator, and architect-designer”, and was nominated for the Noble Peace Price in 1969.

Cover of Sheila D. Castro's Biography on Fuller: "The Dymaxion Man"
Fuller was first exposed to design and craftsmanship through the construction and maintenance of boats during family trips to Bear Island in Maine. He began his academic life in Harvard University in 1913, but was expelled and turned to working at a mill in Canada where he further explored his fascination with machinery and modes of manufacturing.
Between 1917-1919 Buckminster Fuller served his country in the US Navy, where he employed his acquired engineering skills by inventing a winch (spool and hand crank used to reel something in or let it out with the tension of a rope) for rescue boats, used to tow airplanes that had crashed into the water. This development earned him the honour of Officer Training at the US Naval Academy.
Upon return from his service, Fuller cofounded the Stockade Building Company with his uncle, James Hewlett, which specialized in the construction of concrete buildings and the development of lightweight building materials. Their collaborated invention of a new reinforced concrete building method earned Fuller his first patent in 1926.  The following year he went on to develop the Stockade Pneumatic Forming Process, a block building mould and system, for which he earned the second of his patents.

Graphic designed by an admirer comemmorating Bucky's life 

In 1927, when the company failed on account of business disagreements, and his youngest daughter, Alexandra, died of a combination of polio and spinal meningitis later that year, Fuller contemplated suicide but ultimately decided to devote his life as “an experiment to discover what the penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity”. His daughter’s death also influenced him to design homes with a high degree of sanitation and cleanliness. 

Portrait of "Bucky"
 courtesy of the Educational Encyclopedia of Digital Arts

His first creation in light of his new life’s circumstances was the 1927 Lightful House – which eventually evolved in to the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine. This structure was a lightweight, premade, ten story apartment tower, deliverable anywhere by aircraft. The building was hugely sustainable, and self-sufficient in power, heat, and sewage disposal. This project began Fuller’s long succession of 4D design philosophy inventions, in which he designed for the long-term gain and convenience of all humanity, as opposed to the immediate benefit of the individual.  The Lightful Tower was the first stage in a series of housing structures Fuller developed over the next twenty years, followed by the 4D House, Dymaxion House, Dymaxion shelter, Dymaxion Deployment Unit, Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, and Standard of Living Package.  The uniform intention of the project seemed to be the creation of an easily manufactured, transportable, lightweight, and efficient living structure.
In 1937, Fuller finished the development of the Dymaxion Car – a project he started in 1928. Initially, Fuller wanted to create a flying car with inflatable wings that would switch between modes driving and flying when desired. Fuller ultimately compromised on an aerodynamic shaped, three-wheel vehicle, which he designed with the collaboration of shipbuilder, Starling Burgess. The design took a tragic hit at the opening of the 1933 Chicago World Fair, when its first prototype overturned and killed its driver. Regardless, Fuller continued his quest to invent for the gain of mankind. 

The first prototype of the Dymaxion Car completed in 1933 

Between 1927 and 1940, Fuller’s design of the Dymaxion House underwent a gradual evolution, with its greatest changes affected by the number of residents.   
In 1944, Fuller patented a wartime bombing shelter version of the structure known as the Dymaxion Deployment Unit.
Fuller’s idea of the Dymaxion Deployment Units was initiated in 1940 by the ongoing war. He was employed by the British War Relief Organization to invent lightweight, low cost, easily assembled bombing shelters for British cities. The product was a circular self-supporting structure out of curved galvanized steel.
Although the project never materialized for citizen use, units were built for and used by US Air Force. The design was altered again after the end of WWII, in order to accommodate a new need for postwar housing.
Throughout his journey as an inventor, Fuller created many versions of round housing - from extreme war shelters to efficient family residences – all of which amounted to his greatest accomplishment of the Dymaxion House in Wichita.
The famous Dymaxion House was finally constructed as a family housing unit in 1948. The house that stands in Wichita, Kansas is a building made of the only two prototypes (combined) that were in the end, ever manufactured. It was built in collaboration with Beech Aircraft Company, taking advantage of the abundance of wartime materials being produced at this time. In this project, Fuller was driven by the goal of creating standard, prefabricated, economic, lightweight, and sustainable postwar housing. The Dymaxion House took model homes to a new, avant-garde level no one had ever seen before. Thousands of orders were placed through Fuller Houses Inc., but the architect’s persistence to first perfect his design caused the withdrawal of financial support. The two prototypes were the only Dymaxion houses ever built, purchased by William Graham in 1948, who combined them and lived in the house for the rest of his life with his wife and six children. The Wichita House is now owned by the Henry Ford Museum.
Apart from the series of Dymaxion Houses, Fuller’s notable inventions included the Dymaxion Map, patented in 1946, and Geodesic Dome. Although he started designing the Geodesic Dome in 1948, Fuller did not receive a patent for it until 1954.  
The Dymaxion Map was created for the convenience of the globalization that was taking place during Fuller’s time, including the interaction of world superpowers in WWII. But Fuller’s invention was guided even more by his desire to “help humanity address the world’s problems”, hoping that by resorting to Dymaxion Map, people would better understand, benefit from, and more efficiently use the world’s resources. The map was to show the whole world on a 2D surface in proper proportion and arrangement for the first time in history. Fuller first played with the idea in 1927 in his sketches of A One-Town World, displaying “his concept for transporting cargo by air ‘over the pole’ to Europe”.
The Geodesic Dome is one of Fuller’s most well known patents, famous for its lightness, affordability, stability, and resistance.  It has been reproduced in over 300,000 various forms worldwide – ranging from children’s playground structures to the monumental US Pavilion in Expo ‘67. When designing the structure, Fuller was guided by the objective of creating the greatest internal space possible without interior supports. The design of the dome was based on his “synergetic geometry” and his study of “balancing compression and tension forces in buildings”.
In 1950, Fuller constructed his first true scale Geodesic Dome in Montreal, spanning 49 feet in diameter. He made many more afterwards, with a dream to one day be able to produce 3000 a day. Although this has yet become reality, in 1957 an auditorium-sized dome in Honolulu was put up within the time span of 22 hours.
Fuller’s most monumental, 2 mile wide dome, was designed in 1960, with the intention of enclosing midtown Manhattan. The Ford Motor Company headquarters also commissioned a dome in 1953.
Perhaps the most renown Geodesic Dome was the Montreal Expo ’67 US Pavilion, a 61m high, 76m wide edifice Fuller planned with architect, and former student, Shoji Sadao. Today, his invention is used widely in extreme conditions like Africa and the Antarctic, where it protects US Military radar stations.

Fuller's 1965 patent for the Geodesic Dome

Amongst these famous inventions, Fuller earned the remainder of his 28 patents, the last of which was the Hanging Storage Shelf Unit which he complete in the year of his death.
Apart from pursuing his career as an inventor, Fuller also began teaching at colleges universities in 1948, untraditionally merging student exercises with his private research and development. He accomplished the most during his time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, surrounded by a very widely talented staff, with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Josef and Anni Albers amongst other faculty members. Kenneth Snelson, Don Richter, and Shoki Sadao were Black Mountain College students especially significant to Fuller’s career. During his teaching years at Black Mountain, Fuller constructed the Expo ‘67 Geodesic Dome alongside Sadao. Fuller also taught and lectured at universities like Harvard and MIT. He became a professor at Southern Illinois University in the 1950s, and was named World Fellow in Residence by the consortium of universities in Philadelphia in in 1972. In 1961, he received “a one-year appointment to the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard”.
In 1931, Fuller took over T-Square magazine, which he renamed Shelter magazine and devoted to the rethinking of housing. R. Buckminster Fuller was also a technical adviser at Fortune magazine between 1938 and 1940, hired for his ability to recognize patterns and trends in the world. He was exceptionally good at charting accurate movements in the fields of economy and industrialization.  Buckminster Fuller also worked as a technical consultant for the US Foreign Economic Administration during this time.
Over the course of his multi-stranded career, Buckminster Fuller explored his fascination with the natural sciences and deeply questioned the material world. He consumed himself with making the most he could of out current resources, in the simplest way possible, to an extent no one had ever attempted before. Fuller’s inventive expertise seemed to particularly focus on the building and transportation industry.
He is deemed as a huge inspiration to future architects, especially in the genre of Architecture for Humanity. “Fuller’s true impact on the world today can be found in his continued influence upon generation of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet”.
The atom Buckminsterfullerene was named after him in reference to its structure, similar to that of a Geodesic Dome.
The great Richard Buckminster Fuller passed away in Los Angeles on July 1, 1983.


Authored by: Justyna Maleszyk
Edited by: Isabel Ochoa