Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth

Aquila Magazine for children, July/August 2017 (PDF)

Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller wanted to bring humanity closer to utopia – a perfect place where everyone has what they need – and he believed that technology was how we’d get there. Fuller’s dream was borderline crazy but “Bucky” got closer than most, in part because he didn’t just try to solve each problem individually but he looked at how every single thing in the world is connected.

Buckminster Fuller was a scientist, as well as a designer, architect, geometrist, engineer, and cartographer. Or you could simply say he was a genius – and a bit of a crackpot! He had wildly creative and beautiful ideas for how to solve humanity’s problems, and he was deeply interested in pretty much everything he came across.

As the root of technology is science, Fuller studied the basic patterns in nature in the hopes of reproducing them in his inventions. Fuller is probably best known for his Geodesic Domes – those half circles that look a bit like a football cut in half. This construction doesn’t need any supporting beams, and is stable enough to endure harsh weather. Standing inside a Bucky Dome shows you how this design isn’t just strong and light, but also elegant and graceful. Fuller said: “I never work with aesthetic considerations in mind. But I have a test: If something isn’t beautiful when I get finished with it, it’s no good.”

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Richard Buckminster Fuller Junior (1895-1983) was born in Massachusetts, USA, to a family of strong individuals dedicated to activism and public service. Young Bucky was no different, and the work he went on to do inspires us to this day. Fuller was severely nearsighted as a child, but until he got glasses he refused to believe the world wasn’t blurry. Early inspiration came from family trips to Bear Island in Maine, where Fuller learned about nature and boat construction. Fuller was later thrown out of university for spending too much time with friends and missing his exams. He then went to work at a mill, which taught him about machinery. His time in the Navy meant learning about engineering – Fuller invented a winch for rescue boats that meant pulling planes out of the water in time to save pilots’ lives. This invention earned Fuller the opportunity to train with the US Naval Academy, before he went to work with his father-in-law where he invented a new way to strengthen concrete buildings.

After the construction company went under, Fuller found himself at a loose end. He withdrew, wondering how he could best contribute to humanity. “You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe,” he concluded after he emerged from two years in deep concentration. His goal was ambitious: “To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” Fuller wanted to find a way to solve all the problems in the world at the same time, because he believed it was all connected. Fuller called his particular brand of whole-system thinking “synergetics” – to look closely at the natural relationships between objects, and examine how we think about things.

Not everyone liked Fuller – his ideas were unusual and pretty out there – and even those who supported him found he could be exhausting at times. He would often start talking about one subject and before you knew it, hours had gone by and Fuller would have covered not only the original topic, but put it into context with everything else around it. In Fuller’s world the simplest thing, like ancient boat building, was a vital component of the biggest issue, like the development of modern science – and listeners would find themselves not only convinced, but also inspired. Concluded the New Yorker magazine concluded after interviewing Fuller in 1966: “As Fuller told it, the whole rousing saga sounded absolutely irrefutable.”

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“More with less” was Fuller’s guiding principle as he worked on one of his key areas of interest: revolutionise construction in order to improve housing. He invented the Dymaxion House, a cheap, mass-produced module that could be airlifted into place. The name, a mix of the words “dynamic”, “maximum” and “tension”, became a calling card for Fuller, who went on to invent the Dymaxion Car – a vehicle that even today looks like something out of science fiction. This car had three wheels and aerodynamic rounded edges, was 20 feet long and could hold up to 11 people and it used very little fuel. The Dymaxion Car caused such a stir when Fuller drove it that he was asked that he kindly keep it off the streets during rush hour because it caused gridlock. Fuller also dreamt up underwater settlements where people could receive supplies via submarine, and floating communities where people could live in the clouds.

The Dymaxion Map shows the whole planet on a single flat sheet of paper, without any of the usual distortions that you get with maps – the idea was to encourage people to think about the planet in a more comprehensive way, instead of focusing on individual countries. Fuller also developed the World Game, which used the Dymaxion Map to help people better understand how to use the planet’s resources to the benefit of everybody. Fuller figured we were all in the same boat, so it would make more sense if we all pulled in the same direction: “I’ve often heard people say: ‘I wonder what it would feel like to be on board a spaceship,’ and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That’s all we have ever experienced. We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.”

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