The Invention of R. Buckminster Fuller
Early Years: 1895-1927
“Audiences all over the world have had the same experience: They may not have known or understood quite what Bucky was saying, but they felt better for his having said it. He gave people pride in belonging to the human species. He gave them confidence in their innate ability to overcome the most complex problems. He made them feel at home in the cosmos.”
For the first 32 years of his life, Bucky Fuller was a mess. Though undoubtedly brilliant and sui generis in his perception of the world, Bucky was a heavy drinker, a neglectful student, an awkward young man desperate for the acceptance of his East Coast old-money Brahmin peers, a paternalistic and distant husband, a ruinously idealistic businessman and an egotist of the highest order. Then, one stormy night in 1927, as he contemplated throwing himself into Lake Michigan following the death of his first daughter, Fuller claims to have experienced the salvation of divine intervention. By his own account, he began to levitate several feet off the ground, enclosed in “a sparkling sphere of light,” and an unknown voice assured him that he was a vital link in the chain of human knowledge and that he did not have the right to take his own life.
Bucky returned from the brink of suicide a changed man, and in the years that followed became the legend we now know: author of dozens of variably comprehensible books, creator of inventions ranging from the pragmatic to the outlandish, and a widely-respected thinker lauded with no fewer than 47 honorary degrees who continued to deliver more than 100 lectures a year up until his death in 1983 at 88.
The following offers a closer look at the defining moments in Bucky’s early life in an attempt to trace how his early, stumbling years of failure and betrayal that led him to his dark night of the soul on the shore of Lake Michigan and the moment in which the quixotic, contradictory genius the world now knows was born.
A Fuller Taxonomy
Defined by others: Architect. Teacher. Poet. Cartographer. Philosopher. Scientist. Writer. Lecturer. Businessman. Mathematician. Guru. Futurist. Visionary. Pilot. Inventor. Administrator. Entrepreneur. Designer. Cosmogonist. Engineer. Artist. Prophet.
Defined by himself: A comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist, or “Comprehensivist.”
Bucky At Sea
Raised outside Boston in the days wherein the harbor was the region’s economic epicenter, Bucky’s worldview was shaped by the maritime world. The planet is a floating vessel (Spaceship Earth), it’s inhabitants members of a closed system dependant on one another for survival.
Large ships are through the water not by the rudder but by a small flap on the rudder known as the “trim tab.” Even massive tankers can change course radically by tiny adjustments to the trim tab.
Thus, Bucky’s other favored autotaxonomy: he, like other great men, were the trim tabs of the world, individual men set against the suffocations of pre-existing order and capable of redirecting the course of history through strength of will.
The Little Blind Boy
Up until age 5, Bucky suffered from severe, undiagnosed nearsightedness, and perceived the world as a watery, indistinct mess. One day his kindergarten teacher passed out toothpicks and dried peas and invited the class to build with them. While the other children began to construct rectangular structures mirroring the buildings they knew, Bucky had no such visual reference points and, working from feel alone, constructed a crude octet truss - a scaffolded structure composed of interconnected triangles.
Bucky would later claim that his non-visual senses developed so dramatically during those early years before he received glasses that in later life he could not only recognize people by their scent, but also make accurate inferences about their personality.
Bucky’s early maritime education came on Bear Island off the coast of Maine, which his wealthy family owned outright. As a young man, he developed various shrewd inventions to make island living easier, including a “jellyfish oar” that cut the time required for his daily chore of delivering mail by rowboat in half.
After Bucky’s father suffered a series of debilitating and ultimately fatal strokes that decimated the family finances, Bucky was obliged to take over the management of the household while his mother attempted to maintain their opulent lifestyle. His disdain for time-consuming household labor later led him to incorporate a host of time-saving domestic innovations into his Dymaxion House.
The Godmother of American Feminism
Margaret Fuller was the great-aunt Bucky never met. A godmother of the Transcendentalist movement, Margaret wrote “Women in the Nineteenth Century,” viewed now as the first major American feminist work.
Though Bucky would grow up revering his great aunt’s writing on the connection between human beings and nature - reconciling his futurist mechanical fascinations by striving to create inventions harmonious with nature, in a sort of techno-transcendentalism - his upper-class New England upbringing allowed little room for the feminist aspects of Margaret’s writing to take root.
Though he would proclaim the Equal Rights Amendment to be the “most significant piece of legislation ever written,” in practice women were relegated to support positions. While his lectures breathlessly praised the Great Men of his history, praise for women was typically reserved for his mother, his wife, his daughter - not for their contributions to the world, but for their contributions to Bucky himself.
The death of Bucky’s father and his family’s increasingly dire financial straits took its toll on his social status, and he often burned with shame at his relatively low social station among his peers at the affluent Milton Academy and, later, Harvard.
After he announced he was trying out for the football team, his mother scraped together the money to buy him a quilted fabric football “helmet,” far inferior to the leather helmets worn by his judgmental peers. Driven by mockery, shame and spite, the 5’ 8’’ Bucky improbably became the Harvard football team’s varsity quarterback. He nonetheless resented his mother for subjecting him to ridicule, and memories of the incident continued to trigger feelings of shame well into old age and color his views on women and wealth.
One Night At Churchill’s
Age 17, Bucky turns to drinking and carousing to compensate for his insecurity, isolation and feelings of social rejection. He begins borrowing a friend’s dog at night in order to have an excuse to stop by the backstage door of a local cabaret theater and flirt with the actresses on a smoke break.
After falling in love with one actress, Marilyn Miller, Bucky rashly decides to skip his midterm exams and visit her in New York City, where she has been cast in a show. After the performance, he invites her and all of her friends out to Churchill’s in Manhattan, picking up the tab in a bid to impress the starlet. Only when the bill arrives does he realize the evening has cost him an entire year’s worth of living expenses. As a result of the trip, he is expelled from Harvard.
A Year in Exile
Bucky agrees to his family’s demands that he pay penance for squandering their money on a scandalously low-born actress by spending the rest of the year in a frigid, desolate French-Canadian village working at a textile mill, where he is exposed to modern industrial engineering.
He is tasked with managing machine repairs, and dramatically improves the mill’s operation by devising ways to repair broken machines using locally available materials rather than those previously acquired through overseas shipments. His effectiveness in this role earns him readmission to Harvard and his family’s good graces.
Bucky nonetheless continues to ignore his studies in order to focus on partying and the attention of girls, and within weeks is expelled from Harvard once again, marking the end of his formal education.
The Butcher Boy
Age 20, Bucky earns a pittance working for the Armour meat packing plant in New York City. He lives with his mother, but chafes under her “dominance” and movers into the Brooklyn YMCA. He works 16 hour days at the plant and spends his evenings drunkenly carousing, dancing and chasing after beautiful girls.
At a semiformal dance on Long Island, he meets and falls in love with Anne Hewlett, his best friend’s girlfriend and the daughter of noted architect James Hewlett. He recklessly woos her, spending 5 of the $15 he earned every week sending her elaborate rose bouquets. Though he eventually ingratiates himself with the upper-class Hewletts, Anne’s younger siblings mock him for his blue-collar job, calling him “The Butcher Boy.”
After volunteering for the military at the start of World War One, Bucky asks Anne for a photograph to keep with him. She digs up a picture of herself and a dapper older gentleman on the deck of a steamship. Bucky cuts the photograph in half in order to trim out the old man, whom he would be horrified to learn was Mark Twain.
Aboard The Wego
Bucky is turned away from the armed forces because of his abysmal eyesight. Burned by yet another rejection and desperate to save face, he convinces relatives to let him borrow the Wego, a tiny pleasure boat. He approaches the Navy with an offer, and is commissioned as Chief Boatswain R. Buckminster Fuller, captain of the re-christened USS Wego and tasked with patrolling the Maine shore for German U-Boats.
Several other locals follow suit, and Bucky soon sits as the senior commander of a fleet of commissioned pleasure yachts patrolling the shore - all of which are superior vessels to the Wego, which is often left bringing up the rear on patrols.
One night, the Wego’s engines die and the ship is trapped in a heavy fog. At 2 in the morning, Bucky spots a flashing light on nearby Cross Island. Bucky reports the lights to his superiors, and the next day a fleet of American gunboats descend on Cross Island, where they discover a covert German U-Boat refueling depot and transfer point for spies entering the U.S.
Bucky is invited to helm a larger vessel, and soon takes a position at the Naval Air Station in Newport News. The station is home to a fledgling aircraft division staffed by inexperienced pilots flying crude planes that would often overturn and submerge on landing. Bucky’s job is to motor out to the crash site and retrieve the bodies of the drowned pilots.
Weary of corpses, Bucky convinces a superior to allow him to construct a crane on the deck of his ship, which allows his crew to right the overturned planes quickly enough to save the lives of many of the otherwise doomed pilots. Bucky would later recall the first successful operation of his prototype crane as one of the happiest moments of his life.
Under Rule Brittania, seasoned naval officers were fond of saying that when world powers clashed, a wise observer could watch the first few minutes of battle and know who would rule the world for the next 25 years.
During his naval years, Bucky came to appreciate why this was so: all that mattered in naval warfare was whose guns were more powerful. If one country’s guns were effective at 200 yards and its opponents guns were effective at 250 yards, the latter country would invariably win. The economy of warfare, then, involved finding stronger and lighter alloys, means of firing cannonballs farther or of making cannons light enough to accommodate more on board a ship.
Bucky came to believe that the seeds of human prosperity could be found in the progress made possible by such rivalries - while also understanding that, if left up to institutional powers, such advances would always tend toward destruction rather than creation.
Listening to senior officers discuss such advancements as “war games” prompted Bucky to first articulate a name for his peaceful alternative: the World Game.
Age 23, Bucky and Anne are married. Bucky insists that they honeymoon on Bear Island, and while the island’s outhouses and wood stoves are appalling to his high-born wife, she acquiesces to her husband’s demands - as she will on almost every point for the next 65 years.
Bucky resigns his naval commission after Anne gives birth to their daughter, Alexandra, an exceptionally frail child whose health will see saw radically over the next four years. During one of the long sessions in which Bucky and Anne would sit with the ailing girl and talk about his latest projects, Alexandra unexpectedly speaks up and, according to Bucky, expresses an idea not only far beyond her comprehension level but that had only just entered Bucky’s mind.
Bucky becomes obsessed with the idea that, as with his own childhood limitations, Alexandra’s weakness has actually instilled in her special perceptive gifts - specifically, the ability to communicate telepathically by receiving the short-wave neurological emissions of those around her.
The Great Pirates
Alexandra’s illness puts a monumental strain on the young couple and their finances. Bucky secures a well-paid position at the Kelly-Springfield Trucking Co., only to discover the company had been slated for dissolution months prior by it’s ownership interest, the J.P. Morgan Company. Once again unemployed, Bucky’s resentment for the institutionalized wealth systems in America - in particular the leaders of industry, whom he dubs “the great pirates” - continues to fester.
Bucky’s drinking worsens. He accepts an offer to be temporarily restored to active naval duty, where he befriends 26-year-old Vincent Astor, a scion of the wealthy Astor family. The two become fast friends and drinking buddies, and Astor loans Bucky use of his private plane for a month. Bucky and Anne use the plane to travel to weddings and parties along the Eastern Seaboard, where their association with the Astors allowed them to live a life of temporary glamour. Upon returning the plane to Vincent and resuming his life of financial hardship, Bucky slips into an even greater depression.
Age 27. Anne and Alexandra see Bucky off to the train station, where he will catch a train to Boston for the annual Yale-Harvard football game and catch up with old friends. Bucky walks with a cane, which has become a fashionable men’s accessory. Bucky describes how fans at the game will be waving pennants attached to small novelty canes, and Alexandra asks him to bring one back for her.
Bucky drinks heavily during the game, carousing with old friends and staying late to celebrate Harvard’s win. He returns to find that Alexandra has relapsed and fallen into a coma. Bucky and Anne wait by her bedside, and in the early morning hours Alexandra awakes and blearily asks her father, “Did you remember my cane?”
But of course, in his drunken frenzy, Bucky had forgotten his daughter’s simple request. He is too distraught to respond, and can only turn away in shame. Alexandra slips back into a coma and, hours later, dies.
Forty-five years later, while visiting Bali, Bucky’s native Balinese hosts take him on a hike up a volcanic mountain. One of them fashions a cane for the 72-year-old Bucky out of bamboo. Upon leaving, the family announces that Bucky is now part of their family, and that they have set aside a room in their house where the cane will rest, and no one else will ever be allowed to enter. Bucky believes this to be a message of absolution sent by Alexandra from beyond the grave.
The Long, Dark Winter
Following Alexandra’s death, Bucky grows ever more distant and depressed. He becomes obsessed with the idea that his daughter would not have died if she had not lived in such a damp, drafty house. Bucky teams with Anne’s architect father to start the Stockade Company, dedicated to developing housing using a new type of low-cost fabricated cinderblock.
The work takes him away from home often, encouraging his penchant for drinking and partying. Bucky begins frequenting brothels, later boasting that he visited over a thousand and lamenting that they were “the only place where people would talk straight with me.”
His relationship with Anne grows strained. After mutely observing Anne’s harmless flirtation with a dinner guest at the Hewlett family home, Bucky storms out of the house and is not heard from for two days. Upon his return, neither Anne nor Bucky speak of the incident.
After Bucky proves unable to turn a profit with the Stockade Co., Anne’s father sells his controlling interest to the Celotex Corporation, which immediately fires Bucky. Further depths of depression follow, and when Anne gives birth to their second daughter, Allegra, Bucky decides his family would be better off with the money from his life insurance policy than they would from having him around and alive.
While visiting Chicago, Bucky walks down to the shore of Lake Michigan and contemplates drowning himself. Before he can step into the water, however, he is seized by a vision: He is floating several feet above the ground, enclosed in a glowing sphere of light. He is addressed by a spectral voice:
“You do not have the right to eliminate yourself,” it says. “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.”
“From now on,” the voice continued, “you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth.”
The Invention of R. Buckminster Fuller
Middle Years: 1927-1948
“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
Years of Silence
In the wake of Bucky’s transcendental experience following his aborted suicide, he returned home full of energy and divine inspiration and explained to Anne that he would henceforth dedicate himself to serving humanity with no attention to earning a living. According to Bucky, a person “can make money or make sense - the two are mutually exclusive.”
This was understandably alarming given that rent was due and the family had no money to pay it, but Anne’s provincial New England upbringing dictated that she follow her husband wherever he would go. Thus, the small family packed up their high-end Chicago apartment and moved to the city’s slums in August 1927, living in a tiny single room and often surviving on one meal a day.
Bucky entered a period of intense contemplation, studying the works of da Vinci, Gandhi and other independent thinkers and taking a vow of silence and pledging never to say another word until he had something significant to communicate. For two years, he spoke only to Anne and Allegra, an arrangement that forced Anne to become his sole conduit to the outside world and his unofficial spokeswoman when visitors began arriving to learn more about the strange, reclusive genius toiling away in silent squalor.
Joe and the Red Telephone
During this time, Fuller continued exploring his fascination with telepathic communication and the notion that our perceptions of human beings is fundamentally incorrect and limited. By way of explanation, he was fond of the following anecdote:
Imagine a mutual friend introduced you to another friend - let’s call him Joe - with whom you have much in common. Joe lives far away, and you communicate with him only via telephone. The friendship is rewarding and valuable, and you set up a dedicated red telephone so you will never miss one of Joe’s calls...and in time inevitably begin thinking of Joe not as a person but as the red telephone itself.
So it is with all human interactions, according to Bucky. The physical bodies of those around us are only sophisticated telephones, and just as Joe would continue to exist if the red phone were disconnected, the essence of humans lives beyond the expiration of their bodies. Human beings are instead complex “pattern integrities,” conceptual rather than physical.
Around this time, Bucky also read that human bodies are composed of a distribution of elements identical to the distribution of elements in the universe, leading him to deduce that each person is a universe in and of themselves. Alternately, each person could be seen as one possibility of playing a “game called Universe,” a test case of decision patterns that divorced all human action from the notion of Good and Evil.
Bucky spent his two years of silence filling nearly 2000 pages with theoretical writing and odd designs, including a precursor to the Dymaxion house built upon stilts he called his “4-D House.”
Bucky distilled his writing into a 50-page pamphlet he mailed to luminaries from Bertrand Russell to Henry Ford, and the pamphlet caught the eye of department store magnate Marshall Field, who arranged for a showing of Bucky’s interior design concepts. Field’s marketing team was unhappy with the name Bucky had chosen, however, and hired an unknown “wordsmith” to develop a catchier name.
The wordsmith listened to Bucky describe his concept for the house and wrote down the key sentences and phrases, and used those fragments to construct a list of four-syllable neologisms. Bucky eliminated every word from the list but “Dymaxion” - a combination of Dynamic, Maximum and the scientific term Ion, and took the word as his own copyrighted personal trademark.
Return to New York
Bucky soon moved the family back to New York, sequestering Anne and Allegra with family on Long Island while he traveled the eastern seaboard with a collapsible 4-D House model in his suitcase. Bucky was invited to give lectures - which he insisted on calling “thinking out loud sessions” - and would often stay behind after the lectures to sleep in the auditorium overnight, as he had no fixed address.
By 1929, he was a fixture in the Greenwich Village arts scene, where he befriended Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi and regularly attended drunken salons at Romany Marie’s tavern. Eventually, Bucky persuaded the owner of the under-construction Lehigh Building to let him live essentially rent-free in the penthouse, where he hosted raucous parties for his artistic friends. As growing fear of Communism spread, however, Bucky realized his association with the Romany Marie’s crowd could cause trouble, and cut all ties with his increasingly radicalized social circle.
The Toilet of the Future
Bucky’s 4-D House soon caught the attention of the American Standard company, which was intrigued by his plans to mass produce bathrooms as a single unit. The company hired him on as a researcher, and Bucky threw himself into the study of human waste removal. In the process, he discovered that porcelain toilets had been made for decades according to an antiquated model imported wholesale from the old world, one that lacked precision due to the nature of ceramics and wasted vastly more water than was necessary. Bucky instead proposed a single stainless steel toilet that could be mass-produced easily and functioned efficiently - essentially the toilets we now see in airplanes and many public restrooms.
When the plumber’s union learned that Bucky’s new toilet could be installed with four simple connections in a matter of minutes, however, they set about discrediting the design in the trade press, and within days American Standard had terminated Bucky’s contract.
In 1931 Bucky was offered a position editing a new architectural magazine subsidized by architect George Howe called T-Square. After losing the American Standard job, Bucky liquidated all of his insurance policies in order to run the magazine full time with no salary. He renamed the magazine Shelter, and dedicated it to shocking the architecture community out of complacency.
His first business decision was nothing short of suicidal: in the midst of the Great Depression, he canceled all advertising contracts with the magazine - which he felt compromised its content - and instead offered it for a newsstand price equivalent to $20 an issue today. The magazine nonetheless grew to a circulation of 2,500 and, in discussing the threat posed by pollution and the factory system, became one of the first publications to widely discuss a word that, at the time, was largely unknown to the public: ecology.
In order to avoid the sort of backlash he’d experienced at American Standard, where self-interest and personal animosity hindered the development of useful developments, Bucky refused to attach his name to any issue of Shelter, instead signing all of his writing as simply “4D.”
Bucky had long envisioned a futuristic automobile that would accompany his 4D House, and when Allegra first played with his early models she dubbed the car “the zoom-mobile.” In 1933, Bucky founded the Dymaxion Corp and set about building a prototype he dubbed the Dymaxion Car. The vehicle’s round, oblong shape was meant to mimic the sleek design he saw in fish - Bucky took the flying fish as the logo for Dymaxion Corp. - while the car’s theoretical flight capabilities were modeled after the flight patterns of ducks.
Unlike modern aircraft, which mimic the graceful floating of majestic winged birds, Bucky wanted the car to have the liftoff capabilities of an ordinary pond duck, which can make itself airborne with only a few flaps of its wing. The car would have two “rocket stilts” on either side, and its stability would naturally come from the triangulation of a third force. This third force was the gravitational forward push that he observed in ducks on takeoff, which appeared to be plummeting forward with each beat of their wings and mimicked the way a man on stilts moves by taking steps while seeming constantly on the verge of toppling forward onto his face. Hence his pet-name for the Dymaxion Car: the omni-directional plummeting device.
The Car of the Future
The producers at a New York auto show got wind of Bucky’s unusual conceptual designs, and allowed him to exhibit his models free of charge. A Philadelphia stock trader named Phillip Pearson, who had made his fortune short-selling the market prior to the crash, saw the model and offered to invest in a prototype. Flush with Pearson’s money, Bucky assembled an elite team from the thousands of out-of-work machinists desperate for employment, and constructed a prototype in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1933.
The car became a sensation for its curious shape, ability to seat up to 14 passengers, and the lone rear wheel that allowed the driver to parallel park in a single move with less than three inches of space. A deadly crash at the Chicago World’s Fair scuttled the Dymaxion Car’s prospects, and though Bucky would go on to produce a second iteration, he eventually shuttered the Bridgeport factory.
Walter Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler Corp., was nonetheless intrigued by Bucky’s designs and sought to produce a similar aerodynamic car of the future, which would debut in 1934 as the Chrysler Airflow and ultimately resemble a standard automobile in almost every way. When Chrysler learned the second Dymaxion Car would be displayed at the trade show where the Airflow was to be unveiled, he arranged for Bucky to be ousted from the show.
Word of the ouster reached New York police commissioner General Ryan, who was fond of Bucky and had been allowed to drive the Dymaxion Car many times. Ryan ordered the streets before the trade show cleared and allowed Bucky to park his car out front as a one-man auto show, literally stealing the spotlight from Chrysler.
Bucky Meets Einstein
In 1936, Bucky received an offer to publish his first book, Nine Chains to the Moon. His editors, however, refused to publish three chapters explaining Bucky’s interpretation of Einstein’s theories, claiming that only ten people in the world were capable of understanding those theories and informing Bucky: “We have examined that list, and could not find your name among them.”
Bucky brashly suggested he arrange a meeting with Einstein himself to test his interpretation, and a friend of Einstein’s arranged a meeting when the physicist came to visit New York a few weeks later. According to Bucky, Einstein ushered him into a back room and went through the manuscript page by page and confirming that Bucky got it right and marveling that Bucky had managed to posit practical applications of his ideas. Nine Chains was subsequently published with the Einstein chapters intact.
Writing, and Not
Bucky was soon hired by Fortune magazine as a scientific consultant, but preferred to read and think during his days and produced almost no editorial content. When complaints about his output reached the editor in chief, he explained: “I have to have new ideas every single day, and sometimes I just dry up, so I send for Bucky. He comes in, talks for two hours, and by the time he leaves I have more ideas than I can publish in the magazine in ten years.
Bucky also found work at the Phelps Dodge company studying metallurgy, where he soon realized that by examining mining records he could accurately determine the future availability and output of subterranean copper stores and, perhaps, all other minerals present in the earth.
Bucky was castigated for the style of his reports, which broke up his convoluted “Fullerese” style using line breaks, ellipses and slashes and appeared on the page to be poetry. After a company official shared the reports with practicing poets, he returned to tell Bucky that his writing was decidedly not poetry and that he would not submit technical reports to the company’s board of directors in verse.
In 1962, Bucky would be named as the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard University.
Kitty and the Grain Bins
A road trip through the heartland in 1940 would spur the next phase of Bucky’s career, after he noted that nearly every farm he passed in Kansas used the same model of cylindrical grain bin manufactured by the Butler Corp. and realized the bins could easily be converted into prefabricated housing units. Bucky’s traveling companion, the novelist Christopher Morley, soon grew weary of Bucky’s incessant chattering about the bin-house possibilities, and promised that if Bucky would shut up, Morley would fund the building of a model house - so long as his next novel prove to be a success.
That novel, Kitty Foyle, was an instant bestseller, and Bucky was soon on his way to Butler’s headquarters in Kansas City with the design for his new Dymaxion House.
The prototype, made of two bins, weighed less than an automobile and could be produced for around $1,200 a unit, and Butler was soon receiving thousands of orders from the American military establishment, which by then knew it was only a matter of time before the nation would be at war in Europe. Manufacturing ground to a halt in December 1941, however, when the attack on Pearl Harbor drew America officially into the war and the country’s steel supply was nationalized for the war effort.
The venture had another positive impact on Bucky: while working with Butler, he realized his ideas and designs were often dismissed out of hand because of how frequently he appeared drunk in public. Bucky gave up drinking and smoking on the spot, for good.
A Map of the World
As World War II raged on Bucky, became fascinated by the way people perceive (and mis-perceive) the world thanks to the inaccuracies of the traditional mercator projection map. Bucky sought to patent his new Dymaxion Map, but was met with resistance from the U.S. Patent Office, whose director had declared that all possible cartographic innovations had been exhausted.
In 1943, Life magazine published a picture of his Dymaxion Map, which proved popular with the public and included expert testimony so convincing the patent office had no choice but to grant Bucky’s application. It was the first cartographic patent that had been granted in more than 40 years.
Bucky Finds a Home
The Dymaxion map was premised on the dismantling of a triangular “geodesic sphere,” and the contemplation and development of the map opened Bucky’s eyes to the seemingly limitless possibilities of geodesic construction and allowed him to develop a new concept for his Dymaxion house.
That house was finally constructed in Wichita in 1944, and became an instant sensation. Equally important to Bucky’s validation in the marketplace was the fact that the world of academia had at last come to accept and even welcome his ideas.
In 1948, Bucky accepted a teaching position at the epicenter of American innovation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His days as a drunk, wild-eyed outsider were over. Bucky had arrived.
The World Game Report Report
“Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
-stated objective of World Game
Steak and Applesauce
The success of Bucky’s geodesic dome designs and his acceptance into the academic community that followed spelled a period of fat years for the Fullers, and as he approached hi mid-60s Bucky realized he was perpetually running short on energy and feeling aches and pains. He realized this probably had something to do with the fact that he had ballooned to over 200 pounds (he was 5’ 6’’ tall).
Bucky began obsessively examining the body’s methods of acquiring energy and the most efficient methods of delivering that energy, and determined that the ideal food source was beef, according to the logic that the cows gathered vast amounts of solar energy (trapped in plant life) and condensed it into protein-rich meat.
He began a strict diet consisting of applesauce and one pound of meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and was soon back down to 140 pounds.
The Rental Economy
Bucky stopped owning a car around this period of his life, as he was traveling across the country constantly to give lectures and take meetings. He began to marvel at the fact that a new rental car was made available to him at every location, and soon came to believe the rental economy represented the most efficient possible use of resources.
Noting that an average car spends sitting in its owner’s driveway represents avoidable waste, Bucky posited that many other resources could be viewed this way as well. If modes of delivery could be made efficiently enough that humans would no longer need to stockpile stores of food and other resources, those resources would no longer languish wastefully in closets or go bad in cupboards, and the store available to the world would be increased.
Bucky took the idea a step further, expressing his disgust for the fact that office buildings are vacant during the night while homeless people sleep on the street and advocating for a policy whereby downtown office towers could be easily converted into shelter for the poor. The idea failed to gain traction in the business community.
Central to Bucky’s belief in the importance of human efficiency was a campaign to end what he viewed as “sentimental waste” - the creation of trinkets, junk, souvenirs and other objects that had no real function other than to play on the human weakness for sentiment in service of the profit motive. To gain attention for his campaign, he created a fictional company called “Obnoxico,” which purported to sell all sorts of worthless items, from plastic flowers to bronzed diapers.
Bucky grew disheartened after investors took his joke seriously and began offering seed money to build Obnoxico franchises. He would later note that his joke had come depressingly true in the form of the modern-day gift and souvenir shop.
Since the 1930s, Bucky had begun collecting his every thought, invention and opinion in a personal archive he dubbed “The Chronofile,” believing those notes would one day be of great use to humanity. Beginning with his work as a copper alloy researcher, he gradually collected a trove of data on human resource availability within the Chronofile, and started noting a series of patterns emerging among the data.
In 1940, Bucky was invited by Fortune magazine to share his findings in a special 10th anniversary issue. He was given a staff of researchers, and set about multiplying his collection of data exponentially to create a comprehensive inventory of all world resources.
Bucky would continue adding to his compendium until 1967, when the conclusion of his “dome phase” at the Montreal Expo gave rise to the global ecology period of Fuller’s career. While building the Montreal dome, Bucky had envisioned a massive, football-field sized Dymaxion map called the Geoscope, which would unfold within the dome and be outfitted with millions of digital lights that would represent visually the resource data in his Chronofile.
Bucky proved unable to tempt investors into fronting the $30 million projected cost of the Geoscope, and instead returned to his professorship at Southern Illinois University to construct a version out of ink and paper.
First World Game
Bucky coined the term “World Game” while in the Navy, in opposition to the “War Games” that occupied the brainpower of the military’s leaders. Bucky conducted the first World Game during a 26-student seminar at the New York Studio School in 1969, and conducted a second, expanded game at Southern Illinois University later that summer.
In each seminar, Bucky divided the students into research and design teams and tasking each with finding new methods of ephemeralization, which was Bucky’s term for increasingly efficient resource allocation (with the end ideal of absolute and perfect efficiency).
A second prong of the World Game would focus on ascertaining and allocating the resources available around the globe. Bucky suggested that the players should focus on eight general categories he believed covered all the world’s socially abundant resources.
Here’s that list, in its entirety, verbatim:
Reliably operative and subconsciously sustaining, effectively available twenty-four hours a day, anywhere in Universe: Gravity and love.
Available only within ten miles of the surface of the Earth in sufficient quantity to conduct sound: The complex of atmospheric gasses whose Sun-induced expansion on the sunny side and shadow-induced contraction on the shaded side of Earth together produce winds and waves.
Available in sufficient quantity to sustain human life only within two miles above the Earth’s spherical surface: Oxygen
Available aboard Earth only during day: Sunlight.
Not everywhere or at all times available: Water, food, clothing, shelter, vision, initiative, friendliness.
Only partially available for individual human consumption and also required for industrial production: Water
Not publicly available because used entirely by industry: Helium
Not available to industry because used entirely by scientific laboratories: Moon rocks.
To illustrate the importance of ephemeralization - and to support his claim that there exists more than enough resources in the world right now to support all human life - Bucky demonstrated how the standard combustion engine is just 15 percent efficient. Of every gallon of gas pumped into an automobile, only 15 percent is actually used to move the vehicle.
To further illustrate his point, he liked to point out that the total horsepower of every car that sits idling in traffic in a given day is the equivalent of paying for a national stable where one hundred million horses perform a useless, unending tap dance.
In 1980, Bucky would prove that the total energy usage across the United States was no more than 5 percent of its potential efficiency.
While conducting the World Game seminars, Bucky came to realize that even if he and his researchers hit upon a workable global solution, the institutional interests would never allow it to be implemented.
World Game required people to let go of the vanity and status-obsessions of the ownership model of society. World Game could not exist in a society governed by distinct political institutions, who were like 500 admirals aboard a single ship and would always act in their own best interests.
Perhaps most damningly, Bucky realized human beings were so committed to the idea that they are intelligent, sensible beings that they rejected outright the truth of just how wasteful and inefficient their lifestyles actually are. Pride will always lead humans to favor the idea that resources are simply too scarce to go around over the indictment that all humankind could thrive if the privileged would only change the way they lived.
Though Bucky offered his ideas up before Congress and to academic peers around the globe, he preferred to focus his attention on college students, who were demonstrating their willingness to challenge the system in large numbers and whom Bucky believed would ultimately be responsible for implementing World Game.
Bucky acknowledged, after all, that the world’s political intractability meant that even if they could discover a model for perfect sustainability, it would only be implemented in the wake of an environmental or economic catastrophe so dire that the leaders of the world would have no other choice. The true worth of the World Game, Bucky believed, would be known only by the inhabitants of a troubled, not-so-distant future.
The World Game process rubric:
Pre-game resource scenario information:
Human need for: Air, water, calories, protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins, sleep, climate control and medicine.
Rates of food production, relative energy source efficiency, rate of calories burned by activity, and rate of radios per 1000 citizens.
List of trends: longer life, doing more with less, specialization, automation, miniaturization, multiple citizenship, non-ownership, increased leisure, better weather prediction.