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“Technology paces industry, but there’s a long lag in the process. Industry paces economics. It changes the tools, a great ecological change…. The politician is someone who deals in man’s problems of adjustment. To ask a politician to lead us is to ask the tail of a dog to lead the dog.” — “Bucky” Fuller, 1962
Well known for his geodesic dome design, Richard Buckminster Fuller was considered quite innovative. Growing up in the 1960s, I was exposed to articles where he was more a “guru” rather than an inventor. He has many more quotes on Wikiquote than most scientists/engineers. Even though the quote above makes sense, he thought that “all politicians can and will yield enthusiastically to the computers safe flight-controlling capabilities in bringing all of humanity in for a happy landing.” He was famous promoting “synergy” and was naturally materialistic. He had many inventions that were failures, sometimes due to circumstances, and other times due to his self-promotion.
His first invention was the Stockade Building System, which used wood shavings molded into blocks with vertical holes. Brought to the market in the mid-1920s, it failed partly due to “conservative” builders, who need systems that last for ~50 years or more.* Today, we build basement walls with a similar system using foam blocks, rebar, and concrete. The Stockade failure led Fuller to contemplate suicide, where a voice told him:
You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.
Some say that the suicide story may be a myth which Fuller constructed later in life.
After his “suicide attempt,” Fuller committed to “the search for the principles governing the universe and help advance the evolution of humanity in accordance with them” and “finding ways of doing more with less to the end that all people everywhere can have more and more,” which he called “Ephemeralization.” He also constructed the word Dymaxion, a portmanteau of the words dynamic, maximum, and tension, a “maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input.” This lead to interesting inventions, including the famous Dymaxion car, with a lightweight chassis, rear V8 engine, front-wheel drive, three wheels, and an aerodynamic body for fuel efficiency. Steering was done with the rear wheel, which allowed for a very tight turning radius. Only three prototypes were built, with major flaws during high speed/high wind conditions, and the inherit instability of rear wheel steering.
With his previous failure in home construction, you might think he would have learned from that experience. He designed the Dymaxion house in 1930’s, based on a grain bin, and then constructed it after World War II. The house used a vertical stainless-steel strut on a small foundation. The roof and floor beams radiated from this strut. Aluminum sheet metal formed the roof, ceiling and floor. The Dymaxion house was considered the first self-contained building in the 20th century. As usual, only two houses were ever built.
As for the Geodesic Dome, Fuller wasn’t the first to design such an item. A German patent in 1925 and a US patent in 1947 showed similar ideas, but Fuller didn’t mention this “prior art” in his patent applications. A concept called Tensegrity (another portmanteau of “tensional integrity”) was his most important and lasting contribution to building design, mainly due to his fame rather than unique insights.
“Bucky” Fuller was very creative and unique, but other than the geodesic dome, his Dymaxion inventions and others were dead-ends. His philosophical ideas such as Ephemeralization, Synergy, and renewable energy resonated with intellectuals in the 1960s, hence we live with these concepts today, even if we see the flaws of blindly following these ideas. To end this Quote of the Day entry, another quote is needed:
“R. Buckminster Fuller described himself as a “terrific package of experiences.” The record of Fuller’s uncredited duplication of prior work suggests that he was at times a terrific package of other people’s experiences. The greatest invention of Richard Buckminster Fuller was the character Bucky.” – Trevor Blakeen
* Because copper prices were high in the 1960’s, aluminum home wiring was tried. It works, but needs special installation procedures.