Buckminster Fuller

This text was presented as a talk at the Sunrise Offgrid Festival August 2012:

Soap Bubble Sky from Wikimedia Commons

I offered to give a talk on Buckminster Fuller after Dan, an organiser for the festival, made an invitation on Facebook. Buckminster Fuller has certainly had an influence on my life and I wanted to share some of this with you. I discovered him for myself at art college when I started messing around with geodesic domes.

How many of you have heard of Buckminster Fuller?

Here is a well-known picture of him. One of the first things that occurred to me on seeing his pictures is that I thought he looked a bit like a tortoise. Now I liked tortoises a lot, here’s a picture of one I made out of clay when I was 10 years old.

buckminster-fullerActually sometimes I think I look a bit like a tortoise too, so I was happy to find Buckminster Fuller because I knew I wasn’t the only person in the world who looked a bit like a tortoise.

TortoiseBuckminster Fuller was born on 12th July 1895 and lived for 88 years. Some people claim him to be one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century. At art college I even read one of his books called ‘Critical Path’.

Critical Path

It wasn’t an easy read, but nestling there in the middle was a secret that changed my life. It was what Buckminster Fuller called the ‘Law of  Precession’ and it was based on some of his observations, the results of which he lived his life by also. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – we’ll come to ‘Precession’ in a few minutes.

Times were pretty harsh in the early 1900’s and Buckminster Fuller lost a daughter to illness in circumstances that caused him to feel pretty bad about himself. According to history he was so unhappy he was even considering taking his own life. But a voice popped into his head and said: “your life is not yours to take.”

Now this stopped him dead in his tracks and resulted in him asking himself who owned his life, then possibly THE QUESTION: “What then, is the purpose of my life?”

He answered it for himself and resolved from that stage on to design and make things to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty, which he did for the rest of his life.

“I set about fifty-five years ago to see what a penniless, unknown human individual with a dependent wife and newborn child might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity…”

At this stage I would like us to look at some of the things he made:

Dymaxion CarDymaxion car:

In 1933 he presented his plans for the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car with rear steering and front-wheel drive powered by a Ford engine. The aerodynamic shape, most closely related to high performance yachts, came partly from Fuller’s co-designer, the shipbuilder Starling Burgess. The rave reviews of the car’s styling, speed and manoeuvrability were tragically undermined when the first of three prototypes was rammed and overturned, killing the driver, outside the entrance to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

I can’t help thinking that the Dymaxion Car looks a little bit like a tortoise.

Dymaxion house:

Dymaxion SilosIn 1940, in anticipation of the bombing of British cities, he was asked by the British War Relief Organization to design an emergency shelter. Fuller worked with a grain silo manufacture, using curved galvanised steel to develop a self-supporting structure in a circular shape. The unit was designed to be set up and taken down easily. Metal for its construction was, however, never made available by the British Government as it was needed for the production of armaments. When the US entered World War II, Fuller’s units were commissioned as emergency accommodation for the air force.

These do look a little bit like tortoise shells though.

Dymaxion HouseThe development of this was called a Dymaxion House. Made from lightweight steel, duraluminium and plastic and suspended from a central mast from which the rooms radiated in a hexagonal plan, the Dymaxion House was conceived not as private property, but rather as temporary, transportable space that could be rented – rather like a telephone issued by a telephone company.

Does anyone think that this looks a bit like a big tortoise shell?

Fuller Projection Map

Dymaxion MapAlso known as the “Dymaxion Map,” this is the only flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals our planet as one island in one ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continents. It was developed by R. Buckminster Fuller who “By 1954, after working on the map for several decades,” finally realized a “satisfactory deck plan of the six and one half sextillion tons Spaceship Earth.”

“Our little Spaceship Earth is only eight thousand miles in diameter, which is almost a negligible dimension in the great vastness of space. . .

Spaceship Earth was so extraordinarily well invented and designed that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship.”

The Dymaxion World Map was his attempt to resolve the problem of how best to represent a spherical world on a flat surface, with true scale, true direction and correct configuration. In orthodox cartography to present one of these attributes accurately others must be distorted but The Dymaxion World Map’s distortions are distributed proportionally within each of its fourteen segments.

This map, unlike the ones we are used to, shows all the countries of the earth joined, as one. This was very much part of Fuller’s philosophy. Fuller also repeatedly makes it very clear that the scarcity paradigm that so many economists espouse is a thing of the past. This way of viewing the world no longer accurately describes the world.

He says that the past 100 years of history show that man has been able to consistently and constantly do more with less. The human ability to invent and use technology has made the world abundant. The problem lies not in man’s ingenuity and inventiveness but in man’s greed. For man constantly makes the world scarce through war and greed. That is why so many people starve and suffer.

In a nutshell he is saying we can innovate ourselves out of scarcity. Although this isn’t the ‘whole picture’ thesedays, his ideas make a lot of sense to me. We only lose our energy in fighting ‘the system out there’ and we will never change it much. And we all know its days are numbered or we wouldn’t be here at this Offgrid Festival. Much better is to spend our time making new systems that work for us and people like us. If they work – other people will adopt them.

 “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Fuller believed in having the courage to stand up for truth rather than simply following the course of least resistance. He calls people to unite and transcend to change the world around us. Since the ability to transform our world is in our hands, we have a tremendous responsibility to shape the world for the benefit of humanity and the good of others.

“Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment. . .  Humanity is in ‘final exam’ as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in Universe”

He invented a ‘game’ about this very thing.

World Peace GameThe World Game:

Buckminster Fuller was convinced that we could achieve a higher standard of living without anyone profiting at the expense of another so that everybody can enjoy the whole earth.

World Game, sometimes called the World Peace Game, is an educational simulation developed by in 1961 to help create solutions to overpopulation and the uneven distribution of global resources. This alternative to war games uses Fuller’s Dymaxion Map and requires a group of players to cooperatively solve a set of metaphorical scenarios, thus challenging the dominant nation-state perspective with a more wholistic “total world” view. The World Game that Fuller envisioned was to be a place where individuals or teams of people came and competed, or cooperated, to:

“Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

In 2001, a for-profit educational company named o.s. Earth, Inc. purchased the principal assets of the World Game Institute and has been offering a Global Simulation Workshop that is a ‘direct descendant of Buckminster Fuller’s famous World Game.’ In 2010, Filmmaker Chris Farina released a documentary on the World Game entitled ‘World Peace…and other 4th-grade achievements’. The film follows the life of 4th-grade teacher John Hunter and his utilization of the game in his classroom. Despite the challenge and the complexity of the game, the 9 and 10-year old students are able to win it and ‘Achieve World Peace’. The documentary was shown at the 2011 South by Southwest Music and Film Festival and has won audience awards at various international film festivals.

Geodesic domes

Early Geodesic DomesHis teaching colleagues and students in the 1950’s helped in the development of his most successful project, the geodesic dome, the first large scale versions of which were built at Black Mountain College.

Hailed at the time as the lightest, strongest and most cost-effective structure, the geodesic dome was designed to cover the maximum possible space without internal supports. The bigger it is, the lighter and stronger it becomes. The first full-size geodesic structure was completed – with a 49 feet diameter – in Montreal in 1950, the following year one was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1954 Fuller constructed two domes at the Milan Triennale exhibition made from six pieces of corrugated cardboard pre-cut in the US and folded into a small packing case for transport to Italy. Fuller’s hope was that such domes could one day be manufactured at the rate of 3,000 a day.

  • applying modern technological know-how to shelter construction
  • making shelter more comfortable and efficient
  • making shelter more economically available to a greater number of people

UDomesThe U-dome from World Shelters adapts the modular geometry of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. U-domes have been used for disaster response, portable medical clinics, relief agency centers, temporary housing, storage, and workshops. The patterns can easily incorporate local materials, and they are re-usable.

By 1957 Fuller  had refined the design so that an enormous auditorium-sized geodesic dome was assembled in 22 hours in Honolulu. His plans for a 2 mile wide dome in Manhattan, 1960, never came to fruition but have remained the stuff of science fiction ever since. As you can see it looks like a huge tortoise shell because really, he wanted everyone to be tortoises.

IcosahedronMost domes are based on an icosahedron, which is spherical with 20 faces. This shape exists in nature, for example some viruses are icosahedrol. It is a very strong structural shape. The 20 triangles that make up the shape can be further subdivided into smaller triangles giving eg a two-frequency icosahedron, or three frequency icosahedron. There are many varieties of dome.

Cardboard icosahedronThe icosahedron above is made from thin card, with each face subdivided by triangles, showing different ‘frequencies’ of icosahedron. The home-made growing domes below show a basic icosahedron greenhouse made from hazel rod and polytunnel sheet, and a three-frequency icosahedron made from recycled plastic sheeting. Further information on making these is available at: http://www.makeagreenhouse.co.uk/

link to growdome websiteIcosahedron growdome1Growdome 2


‘Bucky’ was incredibly creative and before his time in many ways. Ideas and inventions seemed to flow from him in a continuous stream. I would urge you to have a closer look at some of his stuff online.

But back to his ‘Law of Precession’ which, for me at least, is the single greatest influence from his life. From ‘Critical Path’ and I promise it’s the only bit I am going to read:

“I assumed that humanity was designed to perform an important function in the Universe, a function it would discover only after an initially innocent by-trial-and-error-discovered phase of capability development.

During the initial phase humans, always  born naked, helpless and ignorant but with hunger, thirst and curiosity to drive them, have been chromosomically programmed to operate successfully only by means of the general biological inadvertencies of bumbling honey seeking [eg money making].

Therefore what humans called the side effects of their conscious drives in fact produced the main ecological effects of generalized technological regeneration. I therefore assumed that what humanity rated as ‘side effects’ are nature’s main effects. I adopted the precessional ‘side effects’ as my prime objective”.

Note he assumed that humanity has a purpose; we are here for a reason. This in itself is quite radical. We are not really told about this at school. Where, today do you hear people talking about a purpose for the human race? Out there, in the world of celebrity consumer capitalism, which we are all taking a little break from, the main purpose seems to be to wreck the planet by consuming everything and turning it into rubbish to put into big holes. To watch the telly and support the staus quo by not asking questions and turn expensive pre-packaged food, with its nutrition removed, into poo whilst engendering enough cancers to keep the big pharmaceutical industries in profit..

Buckminster Fuller believed that humanity has a purpose. He set out to make things that would help people to evolve, regardless sometimes of money, getting paid, having a job and all that. Most of his work was directed at helping solve problems that prevented people from being more self-sufficient. He committed not just himself but also his family to this course of action and lived, by all accounts, a very successful life in traditional terms as well as his own, at least once he started dressing more smartly and stopped being rude to people.

Let’s just look at some of his observations that led to his Law of Precession idea.

When you drop a stone into a lake – where do you see the effect?

precession examplesBuckminster Fuller liked bees. I don’t actually know if he liked tortoises. He watched them visiting flowers (bees not tortoises) and saw what was happening. The ‘evolutionary’ effect is happening at 90 degrees to the bee’s ‘purpose’ which is driven by nectar (and pollen). In collecting nectar the bee is, quite inadvertently, cross-pollinating the flower.

A similar example here – this Ancient Chinese puzzle. [Here I provided members of the audience with a Chinese Finger Puzzle to demonstrate how the pressure on the fingers is exerted at 90 degrees to the energy provided; at right angles.]

In a similar way the evident purpose of mankind in making war and pursuing material gain in the form of money, actually has a secondary purpose in ‘evolutionary terms’. So metal created to make weapons became used to make ploughs that farm the land to create food. The Internet, designed originally for the purposes of war, has become endless networks of people leading to the democratisation of knowledge, for those people lucky enough to have access.

So for me the western ‘story’ of: get a job, make enough money to get a mortgage, work your whole life through to get a pension, is failing dramatically. Buckminster Fuller offers us a credible replacement to that story and his life stands in tribute to it.

“The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.

The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living”.

According to Fuller, start working directly for the evolution of people, planet, universe around you and you will find yourself mysteriously ‘looked after’ by those same forces. Almost never in the ways you expect, always seemingly at the last minute.

Natural sciences are still catching up with the significance of his discoveries. In some cases recognition of the importance of Fuller’s scientific research came only after his death. By then he had registered 25 US patents, written 28 books, traveled around the globe 57 times and received 47 honourary doctorates as well as numerous other awards including a 1969 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Here’s a picture of Bucky and me on holiday in the Seychelles:

Tortoise loveAs someone who dislikes many of the aspects of capitalism, the sheer faith this guy had was quite stunning. I have always tried to follow this ideal and when I find myself broke, I console and motivate myself by thinking that I may not be serving the processes of evolution quite as well as I could.

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