Richard Buckminster Fuller, a self-described “design scientist,” believed that human beings, by using technology to transform the environment, could do anything they needed to do and become whatever they wanted to be. A descendant of a distinguished New England family, Fuller was born in the Boston suburb of Milton, Massachusetts, in 1895. The glasses that corrected his badly defective vision when he was four years old imbued him with positive feelings about technology that lasted a lifetime. For nine years he attended Milton Academy, where he excelled in science and mathematics but did poorly in such humanistic subjects as English and Latin. After his graduation in 1915, he, like five generations of Fullers before him, entered Harvard University, but unlike those men, who had become ministers, merchants, and politicians, he found his classes “chores” that crushed his spirit. He cut classes and deliberately got into trouble; consequently, he was expelled.
The Fuller family sent their son to work at a Canadian factory, and so successful was he as an apprentice mechanic that he got a second chance at Harvard, but he fell again into his maverick role and was “fired” (his word) in 1915. After working in a variety of jobs and after several unsuccessful attempts to enlist, Fuller was finally accepted into the Navy and sent to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Here he enthusiastically absorbed the practical scientific and technological education that Harvard had failed to provide. In the Navy he invented a seaplane rescue device that later earned him a special award. While in the Navy he also met and married Anne Hewlett, the eldest daughter of James Monroe Hewlett, a distinguished architect, mural painter, and stage designer.
Following his discharge in 1919, he rejoined the Armour meat-packing company, for whom he had worked before World War I. After three years with Armour, he became a sales manager for the Kelly-Springfield Trucking Company. Its bankruptcy led him into business with his father-in-law, who had invented a new kind of fibrous concrete building block. In 1922, not long after the start of the Stockdale Building Block Company, the Fullers’ four-year-old daughter, Alexandra, died of influenza. Devastated and despondent, Fuller developed a drinking problem, though he continued to work for his father-in-law’s company, whose success resulted in the construction of factories in the East and Midwest. When the fourth plant was built in Joliet, Illinois, in 1926, Fuller and his wife moved to Chicago, where Allegra, their second daughter, was born in 1927. Unfortunately, not long after this move, Hewlett lost control of his company and was forced to sell his shares of stock to a large business firm. Fuller, now jobless and with a wife and child to care for, hit what he later called the “rock-bottom point” of his life. Believing that he was ruined, he contemplated suicide one night on the shores of Lake Michigan, but he concluded that he had no right to eliminate himself, since he belonged to the universe, not to himself. He resolved to discover the basic principles of the universe and give them to his fellow human beings. During the “silent year” of 1928 that followed these deliberations, he stopped drinking and developed a program (called 4-D for four-dimensional) that promoted thinking in time instead of only in space—thinking of consequences for humanity instead of immediate personal gain. In his personal notes he reminded himself never to express his theoretical ideas in public until he had developed an actual invention to concretize them. Ultimately, he believed, machines could take over most work and humans could then devote themselves to devising ways of doing more with less.
In the middle period of Fuller’s life, from 1927 to 1946, he...
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