R. Buckminster Fuller called himself “the world’s most successful failure”. He hardly slept, and he drove himself like a steam engine from 1927, when he was in his early thirties, until his death at the age of nearly ninety. His patient and long-suffering wife died the next day.
In his youth he dropped out of university (he didn’t ever take a degree) but in his old age he was showered with honorary doctorates, and left behind a string of complicated patents and an archive full of drawings, plans and notes that weighed forty-four tonnes.
He coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth”. He wrote dozens of books and gave hundreds of lectures, many of which lasted ten or more hours. Generations of young people became enthusiastic converts to his belief in the need to build a better world.
He was charismatic, sly, pig-headed, and, in the view of many, as crazy as a loon.
J. Baldwin was an early fan, but even he admits that his hero was a little odd. To prove a point about our place in the food chain, Fuller took up a diet of steak, prunes, jelly and strong tea. We are told that he approved of numerology. He believed that apes and dolphins were descended from the human race, which arrived from outer space, and Baldwin admits that scientists were aghast to hear Fuller state that “If gymnasts only married gymnasts, we’d come to monkeys very quickly.”
But R. Buckminster Fuller sincerely meant well. His goal in life was to “make the world work, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone.”
Noble aims, but what did he mean, exactly, by “make the world work?” What did he think it was, a contraption like a washing machine?
Well, yes. To Fuller, the universe as we know it was like a giant Popular Mechanics project that someone had dumped in his lap, and Bucky (everyone called him “Bucky”) had grasped how it worked. He could see the wheels going around. He could see the pattern. He had the key.
It is all explained in his two-volume, thirteen-hundred-page tome called Synergetics. It involves a sixty-degree coordinate system instead of the right-angled one we are used to, and tetrahedrons and geodesic solids instead of cubes as the basic building-blocks of nature. To help get Bucky’s point across, Baldwin reminds us that the eyeballs and testicles of some vertebrate animals exhibit geodesic patterns. I guess it must be true.
Geodesic domes were Fuller’s main claim to fame, and Baldwin’s book gives a good explanation of how and why they work. Those huge paper-thin mushrooms that protect US radar antennae and sleeping hippies cover more area more efficiently than any other structure: they’re light, strong, and virtually self-supporting. They are also cheap and easy for unskilled labour to put together.
Where did a character like Bucky spring from?
He was the fifth generation of his family to attend Harvard, but he was an erratic student and was eventually dismissed. His family sent him to work in a mill as an apprentice machinist. He was readmitted to Harvard, and dismissed again. This time he found work in a meat-packing factory. He joined the Navy in the First World War, and in the twenties set up a business marketing his architect father-in-law’s building block system.
He sold over 200 buildings and life seemed to be going well, but his first daughter died, then the business failed, and finally he was thrown off the board of his own company.
The successive blows were devastating. He considered suicide. It was either “jump or think,” he said later. He spent a year working out a purpose for his life, and concluded that his goal would be “a lifelong experiment” designed to discover what he could do to improve the “physical protection and support of all human lives … aboard our planet Earth.” He appointed himself “Guinea Pig B” (for Bucky) to carry it out.
First he designed a house based on tension rather than compression. His circular “Dymaxion” dwelling was suspended by cables from a central mast. It had an aluminium skin, a “Fog Gun” instead of a shower, and was supposed to be ecologically self-sustaining.
This was in the 1920s, and local building codes couldn’t cope with these radical structures. Prototypes were built, but they leaked, they echoed like a drum, they swayed when you walked, and the interior rooms had no real privacy. The idea never really took off.
Next was a three wheeled vehicle, the remarkably modern “Dymaxion Car”. It was meant to be developed further as a flying machine, but the three prototypes that were built were unstable even on the ground, and again the idea failed.
His geodesic domes had more success, particularly with the military, who didn’t have to worry about local councils and their regulations.
Baldwin points out that “Guinea Pig B” was right about many things. He was against pollution and waste. He saw how important recycling would be as the human race grew and outstripped its resources. He was a tireless teacher, and inspired people to plan a better future for the planet.
But Baldwin admits that Bucky’s theories were vague in important areas, and many of his patent drawings were incomplete. His projects were sometimes impractical, and he was impatient about vital details. Some of his best projects were stymied on the brink of success because of a strange, almost self-destructive obstinacy.
Baldwin is frank about his bias. He confesses he underwent a conversion experience as a freshman design student at the University of Michigan in 1952, when he sat through what he calls a “stunning” fourteen-hour lecture by Fuller that questioned the validity of everything he’d been taught. Baldwin attached himself to Fuller and has been associated with his ideas ever since. He was one of the editors of the Whole Earth Catalog, a million-selling source book of counter-cultural information started in the magic year 1968 as a direct offshoot of Buckminster Fuller’s insights.
This book — full of drawings, diagrams, quirky anecdotes, and photographs of strange mechanical objects from another age — is an intriguing summary of Bucky’s oddball beliefs and his amazing career in orbit around the outer limits of the rational world.