Ideas into Action: Bucky in the World Around You
"My self-disciplines ruled that
It would be all right for me to talk —
If I translated my philosophy
Into actions and artifacts—physical invention."
From R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE
Inspired by the potential of an experiment to see what difference one person could make in the world, R. Buckminster Fuller was committed to creating physical objects from his ideas and discoveries. Although his "artifacts" were frequently "adjudged by critics as being 'failures'" because they were not commercially successful, the truth is that many of his designs are still in use today.
Perhaps the best known of Fuller's inventions is the geodesic dome, a spherical structure made of triangles. Fuller secured a U.S. patent for geodesic domes by articulating their principles, and he went on to build countless domes that could sustain their weight with no practical limits. The critical feature of a geodesic dome is that it requires no internal supports, so a large space can be enclosed while remaining free of obstruction. True geodesic domes are also extremely lightweight and relatively easy to construct, while also being extremely stable. In addition, they are aerodynamic and can withstand hurricane-level winds.
Some of the most well-known examples of true geodesic domes or spheres are Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, and the Montreal Biosphere, formerly the American Pavilion of Expo 67, which was designed by Fuller himself.
Their stability and ease of construction has helped to make geodesic structures common in the world today. Playground climbers, like the one shown here, use a geodesic construction.
The development and popularity of the 70mm IMAX film format required movie theaters with large, slightly rounded projection areas free of obstructions. Many IMAX theaters today make use of geodesics, including Cinesphere in Toronto, the first permanent IMAX theater, and the famous Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
Fuller encouraged the use of geodesic domes to create inexpensive, durable housing for individual families. Although the idea never became as popular as he'd hoped, a number of private residences were built as geodesic domes, including the home he lived in with his wife in Carbondale, Illinois. Some are still in use today.
Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map (the Fuller Projection)
Looking at a spherical globe side by side with a flat map of the world, it becomes obvious that the "flat" image most people have of the world is different from its spherical reality. Fuller designed a map to show the rounded surface of the earth on a flat page, while minimizing distortions to the shapes and sizes of continents, countries, and bodies of water. The resulting map, known as the "Fuller Map" or "Fuller projection" is commonly displayed in exhibits or classrooms to demonstrate the weaknesses of more common world maps.
As important as the geography to Fuller was the philosophical impact that maps could have on the way people think about the Earth and about each other. Traditional projections, he believed, taught people to think of continents as being separated by vast distances or bodies of water. They also encouraged people to think of the world as having a "top" and a "bottom." The Fuller projection, in contrast, can be rearranged to show our world accurately in a number of ways, none having a "top" or "bottom." Two of the most commonly used arrangements of the Fuller projection include a version that shows the continents as one connected "island" and a version that shows the oceans as one connected sea.
In 1933, Fuller designed and built a three-wheeled, aerodynamic car that was 20 feet long and could carry 11 passengers at speeds up to 90-120 miles per hour, all while operating at a stunning 30 miles per gallon of gasoline. The three-wheeled design allowed the Dymaxion car to turn — and turn around – in a compact space.
Although only three prototypes were ever built and the Dymaxion car never went into full production, the principles of Fuller's design have had lasting effects in automobile design. Aerodynamic considerations are now figured into many car designs. And who today isn't trying to design a large family car that gets 30 miles to the gallon?
The Octet Truss ("Space Frames")
Fuller's work with geometric patterns in three dimensions led to his development of the octet truss, an extremely stable, strong, and lightweight support beam based on a triangular structure. Alexander Graham Bell had previously developed a similar structure for use in nautical and aeronautical designs, but Fuller was more interested in architectural applications. Indeed, the octet truss or a variation on it is used commonly in modernist architectural designs since the 1950s, such as glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei, and the Stansted airport in London.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.