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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 73

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This is the grave of Buckminster Fuller.

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Born in 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts, Fuller became interested in design at a young age, tinkering with any number of ideas. He was a restless intellect and not a particularly serious student. He went to Harvard but was expelled twice. He wandered around in his early adulthood, working in a textile mill and a meatpacking plant, joining the U.S. Navy in World War I, editing the art section of a magazine, working as a shipboard radio operator, etc. He started a business with his father-in-law in the early 1920s to produce lightweight and fireproof housing. The business failed in 1927 and Fuller was left with nothing, although he did have family money. He was a 32 year old man who was an abject failure in life. He was a drunk who contemplated suicide as he walked the streets of Chicago. He eventually moved to Greenwich Village and became involved in the art scene there, engaging in his various projects, most of which led nowhere. He continued tinkering though, coming with the Dymaxion car that was displayed at the Chicago’s World Fair in 1933. This lightweight odd vehicle was actually road tested, but had a small problem of ending up in crashes, possibly because other drivers freaked out upon seeing it. He also produced his Dymaxion houses, one of which you can tour at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and which I can tell you is pretty cool to walk through. This lightweight house designed for windy climates (it was originally developed in Wichita), was intended to be cheap to produce and easy to assemble, perfect for a nation on the move during World War II. This did achieve some interest, but the company went nowhere as orders proved difficult to produce.

In 1948 and 1949, he was teaching at Black Mountain College, the art school in the forests outside of Asheville, North Carolina. There, he came up with the idea of the geodesic dome. He wasn’t the first; an earlier version was created in the 1910s, but Fuller reinvigorated it and, most importantly, won the patent rights. This lightweight design had an immediate impact, as the U.S. military saw it as a valuable Cold War building technology, much like its cousin the Quonset hut. He created a firm based in Raleigh to produce them for the Marines. He continued to experiment in a form that could grow to nearly any size with few practical limitations. This invention finally gave him stability. He became a professor at Southern Illinois University and he took on projects around the United States and abroad, including Expo ’67 in Montreal, where he constructed an enormous geodesic dome. Being a mystic (in fact, he came from the transcendentalist Fuller family that includes Margaret Fuller), he saw this design as combining with solar and wind energy to save humanity from its excesses. Of course, he lived in his own geodesic dome in Carbondale, Illinois, pictured below:

Buckminster_Fuller_dome_in_Carbondale

What made the geodesic dome particularly famous was its adaptation by hippies. Communes such as Drop City adapted it for their experimental lifestyles in the rural American West. Stewart Brand became a particularly important follower, for it so well fit his ideas about appropriate technology that he evangelized in his Whole Earth Catalog. He believed that previous utopian schemes were inherently elitist, whereas his ideas, not only the domes and renewable energy projects, but his broader ideas of efficiency were inherently democratic and could save the planet precisely because they could be applied broadly. He continued in his weird experiments through the rest of his life. Some of these were architectural in nature, often produced with significant corporate support, such as the Otisco Project, an industrial form of the geodesic dome that was seen to have real potential by many corporations. Some were more like his experiments in sleep, attempting to copy cats by taking short naps but never long, deep sleeps. Of course, he called it Dymaxion sleep and claimed it worked and that he only stopped because it did not work well with his business partners’ sleep habits. He also invented long, compound words to create a new language for the future to go along with his homes, cars, and energy designs.

Fuller died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 88, while taking care of his wife, who would die two days later of cancer.

Buckminster Fuller is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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  • DrDick

    OK, now you are giving me flashbacks to my misspent hippy youth.

    • cpinva

      me too, but not quite old enough to be hippy. went to Expo ’67, saw the ginormous geodesic dome, was pretty impressed.

  • El Guapo

    He also liked to wear three watches while flying — one showing the local time, one the time at his destination, and one showing the time at his home in Carbondale, IL.

    • Cheap Wino

      Bucky knew a great place when he saw it. Carbondale is ground zero for the best spot to watch the upcoming eclipse, the first in the US since 1979. The first total solar eclipse over the U.S. since 1979 will reach its point of greatest duration on Aug. 21, 2017, just a few miles south of Carbondale. The next solar eclipse will happen on April 8, 2024. The centerlines of totality for both these eclipses intersect over Carbondale’s Cedar Lake.

      “Just a few miles south” overstates the distance. Cedar lake is Carbondale’s water supply and all that area is effectively Carbondale, if not technically.

      • Cheap Wino
      • Hogan
        • Cheap Wino

          Hey! Don’t impugn Carbondale with the taint of Mike Bost. That moron is from Murphysboro, seven miles west.

          • rhino

            Wait, Hogan says asshole, you say taint. Who are we supposed to believe!!??

            One of you is Fake News!

            • Cheap Wino

              To add to the confusion, he’s also a dick.

            • Hogan

              I’ve been to Carbondale only once, so I’ll defer to CW’s local knowledge.

            • JonH

              They’re both right if you add the appropriate error bars.

            • cpinva

              a tainted asshole. there, fixed that for ya.

      • ASV

        Every hotel in 100 miles is reportedly sold out for three days around the eclipse (100 miles includes St. Louis, so I’m skeptical about this), and I can’t hope enough that I don’t live here anymore come August. This is not a town that’s built to accommodate the up to 100,000 extra people that are expected.

        • Sounds like a good time for a weekend in Chicago or Nashville.

        • Cheap Wino

          Yeah, this area is not set up for that kind of people influx, it’s going to be crazy. How are all these people going to eat and do people kind of things? It will be as if 10 million people descended on Chicago for a week.

        • John McDonald

          A total solar eclipse is an amazing sight, well worth traveling hundreds of miles to see. But the difference between the two minutes and 45 seconds of totality near Carbondale, and the two minutes of totality in the rest of the path (from Oregon to South Carolina), is silly. Everyone should just go to the nearest point on the eclipse path with good weather.

    • The Dark God of Time

      San Francisco socialites used to wear two watches, one for local time and one for NYC time.

      • Hogan

        Math is hard!

        • The Dark God of Time

          They could afford to travel to the East Coast whenever it suited their fancy, or call any family/friends over there as well.

        • I’m sure there were a significant number of socialites in San Francisco well before the federal 1918 Standard Time Act. What I’m not sure of is just which local standards were in effect in NYC and SF. But it’s very possible that an accurate calculation would have been more complicated than merely changing the hour of an hour:minute:second epoch designation (and might even have changed from season to season?).

      • Thom

        In what era? I believe you, but am wondering when this was a fashion (not having ever known any socialites).

        • The Dark God of Time

          From the 50s until the 80s.

      • Dennis Orphen

        If the FSM meant for us to only wear one watch he would have given us only one wrist.

  • rwelty

    the Dymaxion car is interesting, but there is a lot that was not yet understood about aerodynamics at the time. and the rear steering choice is strange; i think the only thing i’ve ever driven that had rear steering was a combine, and that definitely affect its handling.

  • Bill Murray

    Fuller also has an important class of chemical compounds named after him, because the initial compound formed resembled a geodesic dome

    • Matt Heath

      A molecule made of one element is not a compound/pendentry

      Massively pleased to discover that the namesake of these molecules lived in a place called Carbondale

    • Jordan

      One of the scientists who got the Nobel for that was at my undergrad and bought a silly completely bright yellow Italian sportscar with the proceedings. It was always funny to notice it on campus.

      • Dennis Orphen

        Horrible. I hope for his sake it wasn’t a Fiat 850 Spider. Also, that yellow really only works on Spridgets, maybe a Triumph GT6. Always go British (pre 74.5 of course). And the order of preferred color is White > BRG > Anything but Red > Red.

        • Jordan

          uhhh …. sure.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    Bucky Fuller is one of my favorite “interesting nuts”. The definition of which is someone with interesting, sometimes brilliant, but mostly impractical ideas. Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Korzybsky are a couple of other examples.

  • randy khan

    A plug for the Henry Ford: Besides the Dymaxion House (worth the price of admission by itself), it has the actual Rosa Park bus (in true gearhead fashion, totally restored), with her original seat carefully marked so that you can sit in it; a room from a Holiday Inn; a pretty decent collection of Lincoln memorabilia; Thomas Edison’s original Menlo Park workshop (acquired before Edison figured out that Ford was a crazy anti-Semite); the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop; more cars (of course) than you can shake a stick at; and, just recently added, a really fine collection of contemporary glass art. It’s a wild hodgepodge, to say the least.

    • Linnaeus

      a pretty decent collection of Lincoln memorabilia

      Including the seat he was sitting in when he was assassinated.

    • Woodrowfan

      Historic buildings all ripped out of their context and set in a fantasy idealized small town. Ugh.

      • randy khan

        In their semi-defense:

        (a) That was not uncommon at the time the historic village part of the Henry Ford was put together. My wife used to work at what is now called Historic Richmondtown in Staten Island where most of the buildings had been moved from other places in the borough.

        (b) In at least one case (the Edison workshop), Ford got the building because Edison was replacing it with another one, so moving it actually preserved it. In other cases, the buildings are only sort-of historic – one is a cottage where Robert Frost lived briefly.

    • Lot_49

      Also the Ford GT-40 that Dan Gurney drove at Le Mans, with a bump in the roof to accommodate Gurney’s unusual-for-race-car-drivers height.

  • sigaba

    I know he was a pilot but any insight on the epitaph?

    • lioness van pelt

      quote from 1972 interview with Playboy

      Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, “Call me Trim Tab.”

    • keta

      Yeah, being somewhat salty I too wondered about that. Here’s one thing I found:

      In response to the interviewer’s question about how we can live with “a sense of the individual’s impotence to affect events, to improve or even influence our own welfare, let alone that of society,” Fuller offers his magnificent metaphor:

      “Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, “Call me Trim Tab.”

      The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.”

      When Fuller died a decade later, this ethos was inscribed into his gravestone.

      • Dennis Orphen

        Everything that I was good naturedly ribbed and kidded for as a young(er) person is SOP now in the urban areas of the blue states, and accepted without much questioning most everywhere else.

        And, things got be Just a Little Bit Salty sometimes.

      • JonH

        It’s a great story, but clearly aspirational rather than an accurate depiction of Fuller’s effect on the world.

        • TopsyJane

          Hugh Kenner:

          “Bucky’s work, seen part by part, a story of crisis and failure, buildings that don’t get built, industries that don’t get financed, theories that don’t get heard. Seen whole, it is an effort to develop a vast new paradigm, the synergetic vision…”

  • Dilan Esper

    Almost a decade before the Astrodome, he tried to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn with a geodesic domed stadium design. It would have been built where the Barclay’s Center eventually was put.

    Walter O’Malley was actually on board with it, but Robert Moses blocked it and the team moved out here.

    • keta

      Ah yes. The infamous Brooklyn Dodgers’ geodesic doom.

  • Downpuppy

    This is a modest grave on a hillside. I ran into it looking for somebody else.

    • Downpuppy

      And the rest of the story…

      This was soon after I’d seen Winter Soldier. As was my wont in those times, I responded like a trained pointer : Standing frozen, pointing, chanting “Buck, buck, buck, buck, BUCKY!”.

      My wife was Not Amused.

  • Woodrowfan

    I’m a tad disappointed the stone is not a dome shape.

  • Tehanu

    Hubby Dearest interviewed Fuller once, back in the 70’s, for a local counterculture weekly, and I tagged along. He was friendly and very easy to talk to, and at the end of an hour or two he told H.D. how impressed he was that H.D (a) had actually read his books and (b) hadn’t asked, like every other journalist Bucky had ever met, about the Dymaxion toilet. I wish we’d had the chance to spend more time with him.

  • jpatters

    Fun fact: Fuller advocated building a dome over the entire city of Winooski Vermont, which is almost precisely one square mile. link

    • Porlock Junior

      Stewart Brand’s advocacy of the geodesic dome has been noted here. In time he abandoned that, when too many people had found the things nearly impossible to leak-proof.

      When Brand wrote his book on successful architecture, How Buildings Learn, he described it as part of his penance for having pushed the geodesic dome.

      BTW about 20 years ago there was a one-man show in San Francisco in which the lead and only character represented Fuller talking of his life and work. I enjoyed it greatly, without ever having been a Fuller fan. A reviewer in the SF Chronicle said it showed Fuller in a good light, and showed he wasn’t really a geek. One perceptive young person dissented: Of course Fuller was a geek, an interesting and even a lovable one.

      Such a pity that so little of his output of good ideas actually worked well.

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