Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 73

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 73


This is the grave of Buckminster Fuller.


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:


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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