Guinea Pig B
An American visionary, R. Buckminster Fuller dedicated his life to helping solve global issues. Calling himself "Guinea Pig B," he conducted "a 50-year experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity." He pioneered sustainable living through innovative inventions in design and architecture, most notably the geodesic dome, and his legacy continues to inspire scientists and artists today.
Born on July 12, 1895, in Milton, Mass., Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller had a knack for design from childhood. His first design project was a playpen for his baby sister. He spent most of his youth on Bear Island, off the coast of Maine, where he would find materials from the woods and then make them into tools or crafts. Fuller came from an upright family; he was the grandnephew of American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and the son of a businessman. He would have become the fifth generation of Fullers to graduate from Harvard, but during his first semester, he was expelled for irresponsible behavior – including spending a whole year's financial allowance on a party for chorus girls – and was sent to work in a textile mill. After the university readmitted him a couple of years later, he got expelled again because he was "bored" and therefore neglected his studies.
Fuller found himself at home in that textile mill. Later he worked at a meat-packing company, before joining the U.S. Navy, where he rekindled his love for the sea and sea travel that he had developed in his youth. He would later report that the training he got in the Navy was at the core of his "global thinking." During World War I, he served as a shipboard radio operator and crash-boat commander. After his discharge in 1917, he married Anne Hewlett. Together they had two daughters, Alexandra and Allegra. When Alexandra tragically died at age 4 from complications with polio and spinal meningitis, the unemployed 32-year-old Fuller turned to drinking and even considered suicide. But, he came back from the brink and committed himself to his life's experiment of developing solutions to vexing global problems – starting with a low-cost resource-efficient house.
Fuller started to hang out at Romany Marie's pub in Greenwich Village, where he met with the likes of Russian writer Maxim Gorky and Isamu Noguchi. With the agreement that he would redesign Gorky's furniture in exchange for food, Fuller also delivered informal lectures and displayed a model of his Dymaxion house. Constructed from metal, the "dynamic maximum tension" house was Fuller's innovative approach to a sturdy, easy-to-build and efficient home design. His friendships at the pub led to later opportunity to teach at colleges, including Black Mountain College and Harvard Univ. Perhaps more crucially, Fuller was able to collaborate with these minds on technological projects.
In 1949, he constructed the geodesic dome (patent date 1954), for which he gained international fame. Over the next quarter-century, he continued to invent technology and propose ideas, especially in the fields of architecture and transportation, because he wanted to move toward a more efficient society. His designs notably incorporated alternative energy sources like solar and wind power. In addition, he proclaimed that the world has enough resources to eliminate hunger and poverty but only with a world invested in "design revolution." His progressive views were popular in the 1960s, when many people, believing the old system of government was broken, began to seek new ways of thinking.
Fuller shared his extensive knowledge with thousands of people through his lectures. In 1975, he delivered a lecture over the course of 12 days to explain all he knew and to encourage his audience to go out and make a difference. During his prolific career, he penned approximately 30 books, was issued patents and received many awards, including AHA's Humanist of the Year and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor. Fuller died in 1983 at age 87.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.