R Buckminster Fuller

New York Times obituary

By Albin Krebs

Obituaries Index

R Buckminster Fuller, Futurist inventor, dies at 87

R. Buckminster Fuller, the forward-looking inventor best known as the father of the geodesic dome, died of a heart attack Friday in Los Angeles at the Good Samaritan Hospital while visiting his wife, who is critically ill. He was 87 years old, and lived in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

As he put it himself, with his customary cheerful immodesty, Mr. Fuller was an "an engineer, inventor, mathematician, architect, cartographer, philosopher, poet, cosmogonist, comprehensive designer and choreographer."

He was also a thoroughgoing original, who for many years was dismissed by many as something of a crackpot. But by the 1950's, having stubbornly refused to abandon his beliefs that through technology "man can do anything he needs to do" and that "man can create miracles," he had attracted a cultlike following.

Well into his 70's, Mr. Fuller yearly flew tens of thousands of miles, giving college lectures, some of which extended to a nonstop five or six hours. He was enormously popular among young people, whom he counseled to "reform the environment instead of trying to reform man."

"The young world," as he called modern youth, listened raptly as the somewhat disheveled, stockily built Mr. Fuller, his arms waving excitedly, his eyes flashing behind thick glasses, told of his dreams of a better tomorrow.

Called Naive by Detractors

And he gave this advice to the young: "Bite your tongue. Get a cinder in your eye. When you feel good, you feel nothing." He ignored detractors who called him a megalomaniac, "an inspired child" and a naive romanticist, garrulously proclaiming his vision that man, through technology and planning, could become superman.

"The entire population of the earth," he would say, "could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles."

Mr. Fuller envisioned mile-high floating cities that could house tens of thousands in an environment free of air pollution and noise. Mid-Manhattan, he predicted, would one day be covered by a huge plastic dome, three miles in diameter.

Some Ideas Practicable Now

Those, he admitted, were projects for the future, but independent architects said timidity and lack of imagination in others prevented immediate adoption of some Fuller ideas that were practicable, such as his proposal to cover 646 acres of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair with an air-conditioned dome.

Although he had neither an architect's formal training nor an architect's license, and his geodesic dome blueprints had to be signed by a licensed associate, he was acclaimed by architects and designers. Nathaniel Owings, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, called him "the most creative man in our field."

But Mr. Fuller was much more than just an architect and builder. His ideas took in the whole of man's environment and experience and potentialities, and he believed with crotchety single-mindedness that "there is absolutely nothing that cannot be done."

Frank Lloyd Wright called him "a man with more absolute integrity than any man I have ever known."

Held More Than 2,000 Patents

Mr. Fuller, who held more than 2,000 patents at his death, was elected in 1979 as one of the 50 members of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Earlier this year, President Reagan presented Mr. Fuller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying he "reminds us that America is a haven for innovators." He had also been awarded 39 honorary doctorates in fields ranging from the fine arts to engineering.

Mr. Fuller was the author of 25 books, including three acclaimed volumes of free verse and "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth," in which he compared the earth to a large mechanical device that, like an automobile, periodically must be tuned. He said each inhabitant must become familiar with its mechanics to keep it operating.

Two years ago, Mr. Fuller was given a surprise birthday party at the Science Museum of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He had been drawn there under the pretext of taking Ellen Burstyn, the actress, on a private tour of a new exhibit.

When he opened the door, he was greeted by a crowd of journalists and friends, such as Merce Cunningham, the dancer; John Cage, the composer; Harris Wooford, the former president of Bryn Mawr, and Barbara Marx Hubbard, one of the country's leading futurists.

Finding Fundamental Truths

During the celebration, which continued at the home of a curator of the museum, Mr. Fuller spoke of his discovery in his early 30's of certain fundamental truths that later guided his creativity, and said he had made a commitment never to use that knowledge for personal gain or power.

"My life has been, as a result, one miracle after another," he said. In 1979, after four Pennsylvania universities had announced they could no longer afford the $80,000 a year they had been chipping in to help support Mr. Fuller's research projects in Philadelphia, he said, "I want people to get over the idea that I need some kind of charity."

A New England Heritage

Mr. Fuller was descended from a distinguished New England family. Born July 12, 1895, in Milton, Mass., a Boston suburb, he was the son of a Boston merchant, Richard Buckminster Fuller, after whom he was named, and the former Caroline Wolcott Andrews. He attended the Milton Academy, where he excelled in mathematics and science and did poorly in English and Latin.

Since there had been five generations of Harvard men in the family, Bucky Fuller, as he called himself, was expected to matriculate at Harvard, and he did, in 1913. But he said years later, "I cut classes and went out quite deliberately to get into trouble, and so naturally I got kicked out."

The Fuller family packed off its black sheep to Canada to work in a factory that made machinery. He found the experience exhilarating. "It was an all-important phase of my life," he said. "I came to know shop foremen, molders, machinists and their respective tools and the beginnings of metallurgical procedures in general. Sometimes I succeeded in designing better parts. So well did I enjoy and therefore carry out my new phase of learning that I was invited to return to Harvard and quickly accepted. But I cut classes and got fired again."

Sent to Naval Academy

After a variety of jobs in New York, Mr. Fuller joined the Navy and was sent to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., for training in scientific methodology. He was commissioned an ensign and was a lieutenant (j.g.) on his discharge in 1919. For the next three years he worked for a meat packer and as sales manager for a trucking company.

Mr. Fuller, who had married the former Anne Hewlett in 1917, formed a company in the Middle West with his father-in-law, James Monroe Hewlett, an architect, to promote a building-block method of construction. developed and patented by the two men. Soon after the business started in 1922, the Fullers' daughter, Alexandra, died on her fourth birthday.

Devastated emotionally, Mr. Fuller began drinking heavily. For the next five years he drank all night, he said years later, and worked 12 to 15 hours a day for the company. In 1927 his father-in-law was forced to sell his stock in the business, and the new majority stockholders dismissed Mr. Fuller.

This rock-bottom point in his career came shortly after the birth of his second daughter, Allegra. He began to believe that his life was such a mess that the only way out was suicide.

'You Belong to the Universe'

He rejected the idea, however, and 1927 became the critical year of his life. He discovered, he said, that he had "a blind date with principle," and one night he found himself standing on the shore of Lake Michigan and telling himself: "You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe."

"I made a bargain with myself that I'd discover the principles operative in the universe and turn them over to my fellow men," he said.

Mr. Fuller embarked on an intense program to completely reshape his thinking. He stopped drinking and cut himself off from his old associates.

For more than a year he did not speak ("even to my wife"), as he wished to teach himself to express ideas "without depending on modes of communication borrowed or absorbed from others." Ideas raced through his mind with such rapidity and insistence, he said, that he felt it necessary to learn to subsist with only two hours' sleep in 24, thus giving himself maximum time for thinking.

Technology to 'Save the World'

Technology, he soon became convinced, "could save the world from itself, provided it is properly used." Man's inventions and his industrial developments (such as strong new alloys) could enable him to improve his environment to a point where, ultimately, machines could take over all work and man could devote himself to learning still more ways of "doing more and more with less and less." In short, Utopia was not unattainable.

He concluded that the universe was governed by relatively few principles and that its essence was not matter but design. What gave the atom and therefore all matter its individual character was simply the patterning of its component protons and electrons. Man himself was "a complex of patterns," he said.

With the acceleration of technological expertise, Mr. Fuller reasoned, mankind was on the threshold of great achievements but was stymied because men were wedded to old molds of thinking. Change, he said, would have to become the norm.

Designed Dymaxion House

He determined to turn his own new thinking toward the industry he knew best, building, and his first design was the Dymaxion House. It had rooms hung from a central mast and had outer walls of continuous glass. Independent of its location, it could be moved easily. The house was equipped with automatic vacuum cleaners and a shower that could use a quart of refiltering water for 10 minutes. A working model of the house was displayed in a Chicago department store.

In May 1928, Mr. Fuller offered to assign full proprietary rights to his patents covering the Dymaxion house to the American Institute of Architects. The institute rejected the offer, and at its annual meeting in 1929 it passed a resolution damning all prefabricated building concepts: "Be it resolved that the A.I.A. establish itself on record as inherently opposed to any peas-in-a-pod-like reproducible designs."

Mr. Fuller no doubt recalled that rebuff with some amusement when, in 1970, the institute presented him its gold medal for his contributions to architecture.

Three prototypes of the Fuller Dymaxion three-wheeled automobile were produced between 1933 and 1935. The auto could turn in its own length and reach a speed of 120 miles an hour, using a standard 90-horsepower engine.

In 1935, one of the cars collided with a sedan in Chicago, and both vehicles overturned. By the time reporters arrived, the other car, which belonged to a city official, had been towed away. The driver of the Dymaxion car was killed, and under headlines such as "Three-Wheeled Car Kills Driver," newspaper accounts did not mention that another car had been involved.

Even after the facts had been established several weeks later, interest in the three-wheeled car remained cool, and it was never put into production.

A New Metal Brake Drum

Out of funds, Mr. Fuller went to work for the Phelps-Dodge Corporation in research and product development. He designed a new type of nonferrous, metal-to-metal brake drum that eliminated brake "grab" and "fade" and halved the necessary deceleration time of existing brake assemblies. The bronze brake established the metallurgical principle of the disk brakes used on World War II bombers.

In 1943 Mr. Fuller designed the Dymaxion Airocean World Map, the first cartographic system to receive a United States patent. It was the first of his inventions to win the serious interest of other scientists. It showed the earth's entire surface in a single flat view without the visible distortion on other maps.

Mr. Fuller's Wichita House, a new version of the Dymaxion circular unit, went into prototype production in 1944, when the Federal Government agreed to release high-priority aluminum alloys for its development. The hope was that mass production of the houses, to sell at $6,600 each, would provide employment for workers no longer needed to build warplanes and would serve as a stopgap solution to the postwar housing shortage. But the building industry did not show interest, and the Wichita House was scrapped.

Patented Geodesic Dome

The geodesic dome, which Mr. Fuller patented in 1947, was the discovery that brought him fame and wealth. For a time, all geodesic domes were manufactured by his two companies, Geodesics Inc. and Synergetics Inc., but some years ago he began licensing others to manufacture and assemble the domes under his patent.

Mr. Fuller's first commercial customer for a dome was the Ford Motor Company, which installed a 93-foot plastic and aluminum shell over the Rotunda Building in Dearborn, Mich., in 1952. In 1955 he began producing geodesic "radomes" to house the listening devices of the Air Force's Distant Early Warning Line, the 3,000-mile strip of radio installations along the northern edge of Canada and Alaska.

Thousands of Fuller domes have been erected throughout the world. They range in size from small living units, such as Mr. Fuller's plywood home in Carbondale, Ill., to a huge maintenance shed for tank cars in Baton Rouge, La., that is 384 feet in diameter, with not a single interior column.

Beginning in 1956, when it commissioned a dome for its exhibit at an international trade fair in Kabul, Afghanistan, the United States Department of Commerce has used Fuller domes at similar exhibitions in Poznan, Poland; Casablanca, Morocco; Istanbul, Turkey; Madras, India; Bangkok, Thailand; Tokyo, and other cities. Khrushchev Was Enthusiastic

When Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had his first look at Mr. Fuller's dome for the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, he could not suppress his enthusiasm. "This dome is very interesting, very good, worth copying many times over in the Soviet Union," he said.

Referring to him as "J. Buckingham Fuller," Mr. Khrushchev said he "should come here to lecture our engineers on his invention." The State Department responded quickly. Mr. Fuller was flown to Moscow for lectures under the lozenge-patterned mesh of his own roof. One of the grandest domes was commissioned by Henry J. Kaiser for use as a concert auditorium in Honolulu. Mr. Kaiser was eager to see it erected but was delayed for a day in San Francisco and arrived in Hawaii to find the dome completed; it had taken only 22 hours to put up. That same night, the geodesic auditorium seated an audience of 1,832 at a concert.

Perhaps best-known and most admired of the Fuller domes is the one that housed the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal; it was given to the Canadian Government when the world's fair closed. Beautiful and colorful, it was also the most imposing structure on the fairgrounds.

Throbs and Changes Color

The "geodesic skybreak bubble," as Mr. Fuller called it, is a structure 200 feet high, with a diameter of 250 feet. It encloses 6.7 million cubic feet, roughly the same space contained in the Seagram Building in New York. The incredibly lightweight steel skeleton is covered with a skin of 2,000 variously porportioned acrylic plastic hexagons that seem to throb and change color, according to the natural light, and as a result the bubble looks different all day long from one angle to another. The sky is visible from within it.

The structure of the Fuller geodesic dome is basically a sphere composed of pyramid shapes with four sides, including the base, known as tetrahedrons. Encompassed in the design principle are two mathematical truths: (1) the sphere, of all geometrical forms, encloses the most space with the least surface and is strongest against internal pressure, and (2) the tetrahedron encloses the least space with the most surface and best withstands external pressure. Thus design, not weight, gives the domes their great strength.

In the realm of ideas, the man who called himself a "comprehensive thinker" jousted with long-entrenched theories.

Rejected Malthusian Warning

He rejected the Malthusian concept of man's being in danger of reproducing himself so uncontrollably that eventually he would not be able to feed himself. And in an interview in 1970, he said those who warned of a world population explosion were "ignorant people."

"The world population will be stabilized without radical birthcontrol programs by 1985," he predicted then. "Besides, man has the capability, through proper planning and use of natural resources, to forever feed himself and house himself and live in workless leisure."

Mr. Fuller disapproved of modern educational methods on the ground that few learned anything by them. "Every child is born a genius," he said. "It is my conviction, from having watched a great many babies grow up, that all of humanity is born a genius and then becomes de-geniused very rapidly by unfavorable circumstances and by the frustration of all their extraordinary built-in capabilities."

Given to Coining Words

In presenting his ideas, Mr. Fuller often resorted to coining words and phrases such as "livingry" and "killin@gry" and "toing and froing," because, he said, there were no existing words to convey his precise meaning.

In later life, the energetic Mr. Fuller did not seek a traditional retirement, but rather spent as much time as he could "toing and froing" about the world, preaching his optimistic gospel that man could save mankind. He appeared in New York City at a Hunter College symposium on his ideas as recently as early June.

Mr. Fuller is survived by his wife, his daughter Allegra and a grandson, Jamie Snyder, according to Ruth Scott, the nursing supervisor of Good Samaritan Hospital.

Ron Landsman, a spokesman for the Friends of Buckminster Fuller Foundation, said yesterday that Mr. Fuller had asked to be buried in his familiy's plot in Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Landsman said that funeral services would probably held there, but that the arrangements were incomplete.

By Albin Krebs
July 3, 1983 © NY Times