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Buckminster Fuller’s Greatest Invention

His vision of a tech-optimized future inspired a generation. But his true talent was for burnishing his own image.

If you have any mental image of Buckminster Fuller, you might picture him as a white-haired, bespectacled old man, standing in front of a chalkboard, holding up a model of a geodesic dome: a visionary, explaining his invention. This is how he appears in the second-and-a-half–long clip that Apple used in its “Think Different” commercial in 1997. Fuller’s image flashes on the screen as part of a parade of some of the most famous figures of the twentieth century: Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” the voice-over, by actor Richard Dreyfuss, intones. “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.”

Fuller may have been the least famous person in that lineup, but to his fans, he was a towering influence. In a new biography, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, Alec Nevala-Lee recalls becoming a teenage Fuller fan himself, steadily working through his writings after discovering him in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Over his 60-year career, Fuller collected admirers, from the college students he taught to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak—who saw in Fuller’s ideas the blueprint for a new synthesis of technology and culture. (Wozniak called Fuller “the twentieth century’s Leonardo da Vinci.”) Leaders of universities and nations flew Fuller around the world to lecture on his vision of a tech-enabled future in which humans would “do more with less,” and the public followed along through features on Fuller’s work in middlebrow mass-audience magazines like Time and Life.

Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller
by Alec Nevala-Lee
Dey Street Books, 672 pp., $35.00

Nevala-Lee is something of an expert in a very specific type: twentieth-century men, working on the fringes of stem careers, who channeled the technological optimism of the years between World War Iand the 1970s into careers as media icons. His last book was a group biography of three science-fiction authors (Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Isaac Asimov) and the writer-editor John W. Campbell. These men, like Fuller, interpreted advances in specialized fields for the public, making forceful arguments about the future, which they said would be science-driven, tech-enabled, (mostly) better in every way. This worked, in part, because these guys had something: preternatural confidence, and personal charisma.

In order to specialize in writing about this type, you need both love and skepticism. It’s a labor of love to take on a subject whose personal archive—called the Dymaxion Chronofile, and amounting to 270 feet worth of paper, now held at Stanford—was intended to provide maximum possible documentation of a human life. You don’t do that kind of work for somebody you don’t respect. Yet Nevala-Lee’s meticulous and clearly written 400-plus–page biography presents an engineer whose inventions largely didn’t stick, a sometime prophet who fundamentally misunderstood politics and human nature, and a person who floated on the good graces of others around him—collaborators, students, his wife—who often seemed to be worse off for having known him.

Born to a fancy Massachusetts family, complete with an intellectual celebrity for an ancestor (the nineteenth-century author and feminist Margaret Fuller was his great-aunt), Buckminster Fuller was a familiar American type: a precocious boy, always tinkering, who didn’t get good grades. He was expensively and privately educated, but dropped out of Harvard (where four generations of his family had gone) as an undergrad, due to an inability to manage his coursework and balance his allowance with the demands of his social life. He was sent to work in a mill in Quebec, to turn his life around, and came out not recommitted to his education, but the opposite. As Nevala-Lee puts it: He was meant to come out appreciating Harvard, but “identified with the machinists instead.”

Nevala-Lee splits Fuller’s adult life into two eras: before and after 1948. In the 1920s, Fuller first thought of applying himself to the problem of housing, developing a prototype of his round, aluminum “Dymaxion house,” which was never produced on a large scale. (The name “Dymaxion”—a portmanteau combining “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension,” which Fuller would apply to many of his projects—was the invention of a marketing professional who worked with Fuller in the late 1920s.) In the 1930s, he got funding from a socialite friend (one of many such infusions of cash from his allies and acquaintances) to execute another of his ideas, the Dymaxion car, a streamlined silver bullet of a vehicle with a single rear wheel and some sobering safety issues. In late 1933, a Dymaxion car rolled over in an accident in Chicago, killing one passenger and severely injuring two others. Nevala-Lee documents several more accidents that took place in Dymaxion cars, including one carrying Fuller’s wife and daughter, who were not seriously hurt.

The car had great publicity value, despite these accidents, and marked the beginning of Fuller’s evolution into a brand: a futurist and innovator whose projects drew coverage in magazines and newspapers, and who could (most important to Fuller) attract funding from patrons who would allow him to do as he pleased with their money. While conducting “independent research” for the government in World War II,Fuller invented the Dymaxion map: a cartographical innovation that could preserve the continents’ relative sizes, even when presented in two dimensions. The map used a unique projection onto an icosahedron—a 20-faced polyhedron—which then unfolded to lie flat, looking more like a partially finished patchwork quilt than the familiar, distortive Mercator projection. The map became the subject of a story in Life magazine, which celebrated its novelty and included a version of the map printed on a pullout section on thick paper, which readers could cut and fold into a three-dimensional object.

But it was in 1948 and 1949 that Fuller perfected the idea of the geodesic dome, and his career as a talker and influencer—the most successful of his jobs—really began. The dome was a response to the U.S. wartime and postwar housing crisis, which began when men left the building trades for the service, and continued as they returned home, and the population, scattered for years, shifted and reconfigured itself across the country. Fuller saw the dome—so lightweight that its materials could be quickly flown by airplane to building sites; so simple that it could be put up quickly, with minimal labor needed; and so energy-efficient that it would save homeowners from high electricity bills, and the nation from wasting precious energy—as a possible magic bullet for this postwar housing crunch.

The design reflected Fuller’s idea that human life was tending toward “ephemeralization,” or the tech-enabled tendency to (as he often repeated) “do more with less.” The idea that human activity was moving from the physical to the abstract turned out to be prophetic, and is responsible for some of Fuller’s continuing popularity among those who credit him with extraordinary foresight. But the dome would become Fuller’s visual legacy. With its science-fictional roundness and fly’s-eye paneling, it looked nothing like a colonial, a Craftsman bungalow, or even the more modern ranch house, the silhouettes of which made up the landscape of the American neighborhood. While some of Fuller’s past inventions—the Dymaxion house and car—were cool-looking as well, they were much more difficult to reproduce and disseminate. The dome, on the other hand, presented a ready-made symbol of postwar American society.

They also became tools in the Cold War. As Fuller’s wife, Anne, wrote in a letter to his student and protégé Peter Floyd in 1957, geodesic domes were used by Marines in combat, farmers on the “first line of agricultural offense,” in auditoriums (what Anne called the “first line of cultural offense”), and even in playgrounds, where kids on the “infantile frontier” hung from “playdomes.” Not only could domes house a growing populace, Anne argued, they could develop young muscles, win hearts and minds, and extend the military’s ability to operate in far-flung places. This proud list of militaristic, nationalistic applications would startle the hippies who later came to see the dome as a symbol of off-the-grid self-sufficiency, and used the underground Dome Cookbook (published by Steve Baer in 1968) to construct round dwellings on their communes. But over the course of its twentieth-century career, the geodesic dome combined all of these meanings, becoming a marker of the “space age” equally at home at Disney World and in the hills of Santa Cruz.

The domes had clear potential, but the truth is, as Nevala-Lee understatedly shows through example, they had significant problems. Fuller built his own home in one in Carbondale, Illinois, where he had a professorship for a while. It was not a snap to put up, as he had promised. Although erecting the shell took only one day of work (during which Fuller continually lectured the workers and any curious onlookers), the rest of the construction stretched over “months, as electricians and plumbers struggled to make sense of a house that lacked conventional angles.” Anne tried to hang pictures from the walls, but they would be “just sort of dangling out from the curve,” and the dome leaked until Fuller gave up and covered it with shingles. After all, wrote architect, writer, and erstwhile dome advocate Lloyd Kahn in 1973, 90-degree walls had their advantages: “They don’t catch dust, rain doesn’t sit on them.… It’s easy to build in counters, shelves, arrange furniture, bathtubs, beds.” And Stewart Brand wrote in 1994, in a mea culpa for having promoted the idea of the dome in the Whole Earth Catalog: “The inside was basically one big room, impossible to subdivide, with too much space wasted up high … Worst of all, domes couldn’t grow or adapt.”

The domes’ failures could easily serve as a metaphor for Fuller’s story about his own life and work, which proves to be extremely leaky at the seams. Nevala-Lee finds omissions, errors, and overstatements at every turn: in Fuller’s account of what happened when he dropped out of Harvard; in his shifting explanations of how key discoveries were made; in the way he covered up the problems with the Dymaxion car; in his claim that his work had influenced Manhattan Project scientists; in his head-turning, Time-magazine-article–generating claim that he followed a schedule he called “Dymaxion sleep,” which involved taking a half-hour nap every six hours, resulting in two hours’ total rest in every 24. Fuller presented himself as a kind of visionary cyborg, an embodiment of tech-optimized living; the self-mythologizing, as the existence of the Chronofile archive shows, was part of the job.

A generalist who strenuously believed in generalism, Fuller tried to do so many things at once that he might have done none very well. Inventor of the Future is peppered with negative evaluations of Fuller’s work from more strictly disciplined professionals: the architect Philip Johnson, who said the Dymaxion house had “nothing at all to do with architecture”; the panel of cartographers who recommended Life be wary of publishing the Dymaxion map, which seemed “pasted together”; a collaborator on a project who said, “He may have been a machinist, but he was scary around the equipment”; the press director at Southern Illinois University who resisted publishing his books on the grounds that they weren’t written in English. “The author has sound knowledge of one thing and mere opinion on a thousand things,” wrote William Marias Malisoff, reviewing Nine Chains to the Moon in The New York Times Book Review in 1938.

These protests from professionals, Fuller would have said, merely proved his point. Generalism, Fuller thought, was the key to human advancement, and he saw himself as something of a singular savior for pursuing it. When Fuller wrote a letter to Albert Einstein in 1948, hoping to secure a meeting that never happened, it included the incredible sentence, “In all humility, I state that I seem to have articulated aright the ‘open-sesame’ to a comprehensive system of sublime commensurability”—a statement that confirms the opinions of both Malisoff and the poor director of that university press.

Fuller prided himself on his ability to talk; but, as those who hired him at universities warned one another, he was no teacher. Conversation with Fuller was a one-way street. When Calvin Tomkins profiled Fuller for The New Yorker in 1965, Fuller shared a story about his encounter with a Maori anthropologist in New Zealand. This anthropologist told Fuller that he was the Keeper of the Chants for his people, and that the chants were a more than 50-generation oral history of the Maori, and as such would never be recorded on tape for scholars to hear. Fuller told Tomkins that he lectured the man on the principles of celestial navigation, and claimed that he had been a Maori at some point, and had sailed into the sea and been unable to find his way back, and therefore “had a personal interest in seeing that the chants got recorded.” Tomkins writes: “We have Fuller’s assurance that the anthropologist is now engaged in recording all the chants, together with their English translations.”

Fuller, the anecdote suggests, could convince anybody to give him anything. This apparently irresistible gift of gab, even more than individual inventions like the dome, the map, or his idea for a World Game intended to figure out an answer to the problem of overpopulation, became the engine for his fame. “Fuller’s lectures,” Brand wrote in the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, explaining how Fuller’s work had inspired the Catalog, “have a raga quality of rich, nonlinear, endless improvisation full of convergent surprises.” Toward the end of his life, Fuller traveled and lectured incessantly, which was often his one reliable method of supporting his household. His reports of these lectures, which went on many hours, to apparently rapt audiences, can be hard to believe. Fuller claimed, for instance, that an incarcerated audience at San Quentin supposedly sat through a lecture over five hours long, risking missing head count and being put in solitary in order to hear him “talk for another minute.”

Nevala-Lee deploys this kind of story with a sublime gentleness, showing how Fuller bent reality to fit his own ideas. Fuller’s futurism, while containing some prescient forecasts about automation, climate change, and remote work and schooling, often failed to consider other people’s realities and desires. To create his prototypes and carry out local construction of some dome projects, he used dispersed networks of student laborers, which accorded with his ideas about ephemeralization but also allowed him to get people to work for free (he never thought much of unions). He believed protesters against the Vietnam War must be influenced by foreign agents pursuing a new kind of ephemeralized warfare. He “had nothing useful to say about institutionalized racism,” as Nevala-Lee puts it, and thought racism itself was being “swiftly eradicated.”

In explaining the inevitability of ephemeralization, he seemed to assume that all humans wanted to float as free as he did, living in light domes, flying around the world, and learning and working using computers. He often exclaimed that man was born with legs, not roots, for a reason. In the twentieth century, these ideas seemed futuristic and appealing; now, when we have begun to live in a world defined by them, we have much more mixed reviews of their desirability. Mobility and novelty, we see, are not always gifts, and stability, safety, and community have their benefits, especially in times of stress and struggle.

Yet despite his shortcomings as a thinker and a person, Inventor of the Future insists, many brilliant people—from the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, his longtime friend and collaborator; John Cage and Merce Cunningham, his colleagues at Black Mountain College; designer Edwin Schlossberg, his later-in-life protégé; Nevala-Lee himself—have loved Fuller, and found something in his ideas. This must mean something, but what?

In 1985, chemists Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley, by aiming a laser at a graphite target, saw carbon rearrange itself in large, stable clusters of atoms that they were then able to observe and describe for the first time. Thinking of the Fuller domes, the group made the interpretive leap (later borne out through testing) that this molecule might look like one: a closed cage structure, with icosahedral symmetry. This was a breakthrough in the field that landed them the Nobel Prize in 1996, and they called the molecule buckminsterfullerene.

But then, there’s the fact that George Mitchell, who pioneered hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, claimed that Fuller’s ideas inspired him to work on the problem of resource scarcity. When a person like Fuller channels the zeitgeist, especially one as new and fervid as the twentieth-century American affection for science, technology, and engineering, the effects can be unpredictable. Fracking makes energy; fracking also extends our bad habit of fossil fuel consumption. Apple gave us the iPhone; it also gave us the human rights–violating factories where the iPhone is produced. Ideas like Fuller’s—optimistic, far-reaching, ungrounded in politics and material reality—can do anything and everything, this book insists. And they do.