R. Buckminster Fuller Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Fuller heightened Americans’ awareness of how to employ natural resources to full advantage—a principle exemplified in his design of the geodesic dome.

Early Life

Richard Buckminster Fuller was born on July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts. His parents were Richard Buckminster and Caroline Wolcott Andrews Fuller, both of prominent New England families. Mrs. Fuller’s ancestors included Roger Wolcott, a royal governor of Connecticut. Mr. Fuller’s family had arrived from England in the 1630’s; his aunt was the feminist and Transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller.

Buckminster Fuller’s father was a successful merchant of leather and tea. Young Fuller, or “Bucky” as the family called him, was one of four children. They enjoyed a comfortable childhood in Newton, Massachusetts, in a large house with servants. Fuller, however, had very poor eyesight; he was fitted with powerful glasses at age four and for the first time in his life saw clearly. He claimed to have been delighted at his wonderful new sense (he maintained that sense of delight throughout his life).

One of the boy’s early triumphs occurred when he was six and a kindergarten student. Given dried peas and toothpicks with which to sculpt, he constructed three squares that combined into eight triangles to complete his first tetrahedronal octet truss. He entered Milton Academy as a day student and did well in his studies, but not outstandingly so. His tenure at the academy was from 1904 to 1913.

Next, the young scholar entered Harvard, where he did not fare well. The snobbery of the all-important university clubs upset Fuller, more so because they had not accepted him. One of the reasons that the Harvard clubmen did not embrace Fuller was his unusual physical appearance. He was five feet, two inches tall with a head too large for his body. In addition, he wore extremely thick-lensed glasses, and because one leg was shorter than the other, he walked with a pronounced limp. He rebelled against his peers at Harvard by withdrawing his tuition money from his account while still in his first year; he spent it all in one night in New York City. His exploits that night included a lavish dinner for the cast of the Ziegfeld Follies. Fuller may have impressed his fellow students with this caper, but the Harvard administration was not amused, and he was expelled.

The Fuller family decided in 1914 to send him for several months to work in a relative’s textile mill in Sherbrooke, Canada. There, the young man served as an apprentice mechanic, gained the respect of his fellow workers, and was happy. His mother (his father was by then deceased) decided, however, that her son should have a formal university education, and so, he was sent back to Harvard. His second stay there was also a failure, and he was expelled for good in 1915.

Not all of Fuller’s early years were full of disappointments. His extended family summered each year at Bear Island, Maine, where he fell in love with boats and sailing. One of his first inventions was a push-pole to help propel his rowboat more efficiently than oars did. In 1917, when American involvement in World War I seemed imminent, Fuller entered the United States Naval Academy; there, he successfully completed an accelerated, three-month training period and was commissioned an ensign. This was an era during which the navy first began to fly airplanes into combat. In working with these new machines, Fuller was again inspired to invention. Seeing pilots drown in their cockpits when the airplanes flipped over in the water, Fuller devised a grappling hook, which hoisted downed airplanes quickly above the water while the pilot was pulled free.

Fuller was married to Anne Hewlett, the daughter of a prominent architect, on Rock Hall, Long Island, on July 12, 1917. Fuller then worked for a time for the Armour Meat Company and then the Kelly-Springfield Truck Company, but when his job was eliminated during the firm’s reorganization, Fuller was offered a position by his father-in-law, J. Monroe Hewlett. Hewlett had invented a new building material filled with fibrous centers and put it to commercial use, creating the Stockade Building System Company. In order to accept his job of managing his father-in-law’s company, Fuller, with his wife, moved to Chicago. Fuller did well in this firm from 1922 to 1927, until he ran into difficulty with the stockholders. Never interested in achieving high profits, Fuller had earned the distrust of the company hierarchy. His interest during these years had been in refining the product, but his superiors did not agree with his inclinations. Fuller’s lack of interest in accumulating wealth continued throughout his life; he usually requested that people hiring his architectural and engineering services only pay him the cost of erecting the structure.

Fuller and Anne suffered a tragedy during their early life together. After a series of grave illnesses, their firstborn child, Alexandra, died at age four. Grief-stricken by the girl’s death and by his business failure, Fuller fell into a period of heavy drinking and depression. He so despaired over the course of his life that he contemplated suicide. Instead, he began a two-year period of silence, seclusion, and meditation, during which he read widely and slept little.

Life’s Work

From this period of intense contemplation, Fuller later claimed, he began to see the universe in new ways. He decided that he had to reeducate himself completely, that he would reject that which he could not prove to himself was true. He rejected traditional geometry, which concentrated on rectangles and planes, and substituted his own, which concentrated on triangles. From this new geometry, Fuller developed his geodesic dome—his best-known and most widely used invention. The geodesic dome has as its base numerous adjoining tetrahedrons. The alloy metals used to build the domes have high tensile strength by which force is dispersed away from the dome’s surface; the result is a maximum-strength...

(The entire section is 2495 words.)