I once said in print that Jean Luc Ponty was the greatest jazz violinist alive, and a friend who was a more seasoned music critic blanched at my boldness — who was I to opine so broadly? He was certainly right — I’m nowhere near the authority on such a matter. But I also felt that not only was it a defensible opinion, but who was anyone to say otherwise, definitively? No objective standard exists to settle the point.
That anecdote comes to mind as I say this: Richard Buckminster Fuller is one of the 10 most interesting, illustrious, brilliant, and accomplished Americans ever to live, and of all those who would legitimately be listed in that group, he is probably one of the least known.
I’m prompted to raise his name, a quarter-century after his death, because I’ve just finished reading “Buckminster Fuller’s Universe” by Lloyd Steven Sieden, published by Perseus in 1989. I was prompted to read the book under the influence of the Biomimicry Guild; I was lucky to attend a two-day workshop given by cofounder Dayna Baumeister recently in Boston. The book was listed on a workshop reading list. (What is biomimicry? The Guild’s website says: “An innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf.” Here’s an example. Here’s another.)
Ordinarily when I write a book review, it’s about ideas, plot, word choice, and whatever else presents itself. But with apologies to Sieden, this is all about Bucky, as he was known to friends. Also, I think the best way to share what I learned is in discrete sections, rather than in a narrative.
First, the biomimicry angle (it’s only fair): It turns out that Fuller was a biomimicrist decades before the term was coined. His family summered at Bear Island in Maine, and it was his tedious task to row over for the mail. Having observed the jellyfish, he fashioned a new propulsion device using one oar instead of two, attached at the back instead of on a side. At its end, Fuller fashioned an umbrella-like device (imagine its orientation so that the umbrella handle, if there’d been one, would have been at oar’s end) that would close when Fuller pulled the oar toward the boat and fan out when pushed away. Not only did Fuller shorten the trip by half, Sieden says, he got to watch where he was going. He was still a boy.
Mimicking without a subject to play off of: If you know of Bucky at all, it’s probably for his geodesic dome, the only structure whose size isn’t limited by the strength of its material (imagine, say, a skyscraper built of wood, for instance — couldn’t be done). (Bucky actually conceived of a dome that could float, if it got big enough. Because of the domed shape, air volume would grow at a far greater rate than materials needed, until the weight of the materials would be negligible. Anyway…) After Fuller died, researchers discovered fullerenes, a family of carbon molecules with many potential applications in nanotechnology, including heat resistance and superconductivity. They were named for Fuller because their shapes are very similar to the dome, which he conceived in the ’20s and built beginning in the late ’40s. The shape has also been discovered on hard virus shells. He was “mimicking” structures no one had yet ever seen!
The Forrest Gump effect: Eventually, his ideas brought him to the attention and popularity of world leaders, leading to friendships with Indira Ghandi and others, but he was connected to other great lights even before birth:
His great aunt was Margaret Fuller, the transcendentalist. He was the sixth generation of Fullers to attend Harvard, and one of his predecessors cofounded the Hasty Pudding Club. Bucky attended, but never graduated; he was tossed out twice, and never got a college degree.
He was a habitue of Romany Marie’s bistro in Greenwich Village. On his first visit there, the only two people there were Marie and a “pale young man” introduced as Eugene O’Neill. Later, he met there, and formed a lifelong friendship with, Isamu Noguchi.
When he lived in Chicago, also during the ’20s, he drank at a speakeasy with a fellow who would soon become famous — Al Capone.
Despite being fairly short and very near-sighted, he carved out a career in the Navy that had many highlights — he cruised to Europe on the ship that took Woodrow Wilson to participate in the discussions at Versailles after World War I. But later, he formed a strong friendship with Vincent Astor, the Harvard student who became superwealthy overnight when his father died on the Titanic, when both served in naval squadron training in New York harbor.
In the early ’30s, Fuller bought an architectural magazine by cashing in insurance policies. For his first issue, he named as guest editor the aspiring architect Philip Johnson.
If you don’t know the geodesic dome, you might know Fuller for his Dymaxion car, which was revolutionary in several ways, including its three-wheel design and its aerodynamic shape. It got 35 mph (this was 1933) and sat 11. Amelia Earhart was one of its first occupants, after she attended its public unveiling and was so taken by its originality that she asked it be her official coach during a week of events in Washington, D.C.
This isn’t nearly a complete list.
Einstein thought he was smart: Through yet another friend, the author Christopher Morley, Bucky got a book contract to spread his ideas, but when he submitted “Nine Chains to the Moon” to Lippincott, the editors balked at including three chapters that discussed the ideas of Albert Einstein, because they had checked the lists of people who were said to understand Einstein’s theories, and Bucky wasn’t on it. Even though he had no connection to Einstein, he suggested the editors go to the source. A month later, Fuller was summoned to meet with Einstein, who’d read the manuscript and would be visiting New York. Here’s what Sieden reports that Bucky said Einstein said: “Young man, you amaze me. I cannot conceive of anything I have ever done as having the slightest practical application. I evolved all this in the hope that it might be of use to cosmogonists and to astrophysicists in gaining a better understanding of the universe, but you appear to have found practical applications for it.” Oh — the book ran with the Einstein chapters intact.
A poet who didn’t know it: Fuller’s writing was stylishly singular enough that Time magazine called it “Fullerese.” (Not sure I’d be honored if my style was christened Pragerese, but I digress.) While working for the copper concern Phelps Dodge, he once wrote a report for the board that was rejected because the executive couldn’t understand it. Then Bucky read it to him aloud, in short bursts, and the executive got it. He asked Bucky to rewrite it, punctuating it as he had read it aloud. When Bucky did, the executive agreed that it was now lucid, but that it was poetry, and he couldn’t conceive forwarding a poem to the board. Bucky would continue writing poetry over years, and in 1962, he was awarded the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard. Can you believe this guy?
An altruist…: Any complete discussion of Fuller has to include his Dymaxion Map (btw: the word, a trademark he used for decades, came from dynamic, maximum, and ion), which he considered to be a far truer depiction of the planet than the Mercator map in use for centuries (and still). He felt it was needed to better show the interrelationships of all people on Earth. From 1927, after the death of his first daughter, Fuller swore than he would not pursue riches, but dedicate himself to improving life for all of Earth’s citizens. He reasoned that if an effort would advance the condition of life, it would bring remuneration, and indeed, though it took a while, the world did come to crave his ideas, and he was paid very well to present them in a never-ending lecture tour.
… but not a saint: He was a carouser for decades — his first expulsion from Harvard was because he withdrew the money his mother had put aside for his tuition and board and spent it on chasing actresses in New York City. Notice that previous anecdotes report his presence, more than once, in drinking establishments. And, what he gave to the world, he withheld from his family. This wasn’t unusual for his time, but not only was his wife a saint, she needed to be.
Etc.: I could go on, but already this is very long, so I’ll just toss these in, strictly ’cause they’re interesting:
Bucky was working on a dome for Ebbets Field when the Dodgers decided instead to move to Los Angeles in 1957. Can you imagine — a domed stadium in the ’50s? Though he wasn’t the listed architect because a bit of industrial sabotage, his work was later acknowledged as the underpinning for the first sports dome, Houston’s Astrodome.
When Nixon and Khrushchev had their famed “kitchen debate” in 1959, they were standing in a Bucky-designed dome in Moscow; his design had been selected by the US for an American exposition there.
Still, I have only scratched the surface. Sieden had a very large, very difficult task, since many of Fuller’s ideas were born of brilliant original thought, involving spherical geometry and a multitude of other subjects outside most people’s expertise. I recommend “Buckminster Fuller’s Universe” wholeheartedly. As for Fuller, he’s been gone a quarter-century and still you could call him a visionary, not only of his time but of ours.