By PHIL PATTON
Published: June 15, 2008
BUCKMINSTER FULLER’s 1933 Dymaxion, a streamlined pod on three wheels, is one of the lovable oddballs in automotive history. Three were built, fawned over by the media and by celebrities, but the car pretty much disappeared after one crashed, killing the driver.
Only one of the cars survives, and New Yorkers will get a chance to see it this summer in an exhibition opening June 26 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York called “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe.” The car, a nonrunning shell, has been lent by the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev.
“The Dymaxion was the zenith of the first wave of semi-scientific streamlining,” said Russell Flinchum, a design historian. It showed up in newsreels and magazines, along with teardrop designs drawn by Norman Bel Geddes, the futurist. It helped lead to public acceptance of streamlined cars like the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.
The Dymaxion appealed to the era of the Depression, when people dreamed of radical new technological solutions to solve overwhelming problems.
“There is a real fascination about Fuller,” said K. Michael Hays, adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney and one of the curators of the show. Hugh Kenner, the literary critic, rated Fuller with James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and wrote a book about him.
Fuller was neither architect nor engineer, but a philosopher and preacher, a man more in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. His houses and cars were arguments, not products. He made up the word Dymaxion, combining dynamic, maximum and ion, and used it as a personal brand.
The architectural firm of Norman Foster, the Pritzker Prize winner who once worked with Fuller, is planning to build a replica Dymaxion.
“The Dymaxion car was a thing of great beauty, and it was made at a time when creativity was at the fore in automobile design,” said David Nelson, senior executive head of design at Foster Partners in London, who is directing the re-creation.
Fuller was born in Massachusetts in 1895 and died in 1983. He was admitted to Harvard twice, and twice expelled. He went from job to job until he was broke. After illness killed his young daughter, he had a revelation. He determined to make his life “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
The Dymaxion car was one of the many experiments making up that big experiment, along with his geodesic dome and Dymaxion house.
Fuller sketched the vehicle in 1927 under the name 4D transport, part aircraft, part automobile, with wings that inflated at speed.
In 1932, Fuller asked the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, who was also a drinking buddy, to prepare sketches. They show a car shaped like an elongated teardrop with a rear third wheel that would lift off the ground and a tail fin that unfolded.
Fuller found an angel to invest in the car. Philip Pearson, a stockbroker who had gotten out of the market just before the 1929 crash, put up enough money to get the project off the ground. Fuller promised the car would have a top speed of more than 120 miles an hour and gas mileage of 30 miles a gallon. He took over the closed Locomobile factory in Bridgeport, Conn., and hired Starling Burgess, a builder of racing yachts, to build the Dymaxion. Fuller opened the plant in March 1933.
Despite Fuller’s talk of borrowing construction methods from the aircraft industry, Burgess built the car using many of the nautical methods applied to a racing boat. The chassis was aircraft-grade steel, but the body was an ash wood frame with aluminum tacked to its sides and a roof of taut, painted canvas. The crude suspension was made up of a Ford beam axle and leaf springs turned sideways. The tail was omitted.
By July, the first car was rolled out to an eager crowd It was sold to Gulf Oil, which showed it off at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago. But in October, that car turned over, killing its driver, Francis T. Turner, a professional, and injuring two would-be investors.
An investigation cleared the Dymaxion of responsibility, but if it was not at fault, it was hardly without faults. Some were small — windshield wiper coverage was inadequate and an awkward periscope replaced a rear-view mirror.
All three wheels turned, making the car Dymaxion terrific for parallel parking, but its V-shaped bottom tended to make it lift off the pavement at speed. Mr. Flinchum said: “Apparently when the vehicle reached approximately 90 m.p.h., its rear wheel lifted from the ground — as it was supposed to in the original auto-airplane conception. Unfortunately, it caused the Dymaxion to skip about erratically.”
“The design ignored ground effects, “ Mr. Flinchum said. The promised top speed of 120 m.p.h. would have been unlikely with the car’s Ford V-8. There are no records showing the highest speed the car ever reached.
Fuller concentrated on the car’s handling. “You couldn’t skid her,” he said. Older cars steered “like wheelbarrows,” he charged.
After the accident, potential investors disappeared. Fuller used an inheritance from his mother to build a third, final car. Fuller, a short man who often wore a white suit, welcomed visitors to the car during the second year of the exposition in Chicago in 1934.
The car drew celebrities. H. G. Wells was photographed in front of the car for the cover of Saturday Review. He talked about using it in the film version of his novel “The Shape of Things to Come.” (The film appeared in 1936, but without the Dymaxion.) Diego Rivera, the artist, showed up to take a look. Leopold Stokowski , the conductor, bought a Dymaxion and it ended up promoting war bond sales in Brooklyn. The first car, repaired after the crash, was destroyed in a fire in a Washington storage garage. The car in the Whitney show, the second car built, may have been used as a chicken coop before being restored.
As with many of Fuller’s ideas and inventions, Mr. Hays said, the Dymaxion car has appeal to a generation seeking radical breakthroughs to save energy and materials. The spirit of the Dymaxion lives on in such eye-grabbing, aero-inspired three-wheelers of dubious practicality as the electric Aptera, with its body like a Cessna, or the architect Zaha Hadid’s blobby Z.car.
Fuller said the Dymaxion was not even really a car.
“I knew everyone would call it a car,” he told Kenner in the 1960s, but really it was “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device.” The jets he wanted had not been invented in 1933, he said, so he simply used a Ford V-8 instead. Such compromises rarely bothered Fuller, who always saw the Dymaxion, as he saw much of the world, as a kind of provisional prototype, a mere sketch, of the glorious, eventual future.
R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER
Inventor, Designer, Architect, Theorist (1895-1983)
Driven by the design philosophy of “more for less”, RICHARD BUCKMINSTER FULLER (1895-1983) worked simultaneously on plans for houses, cars, boats, games, television transmitters and geodesic domes, all of which were designed to be mass-produced using the simplest and most sustainable means possible.
Philosopher, designer, architect, artist, engineer, entrepreneur, author, mathematician, teacher and inventor – Richard Buckminster Fuller was all these things and more. Convinced that the way the world managed its human and material resources needed to be radically rethought, he applied himself to seeking long term, technology-led solutions to some of the most pressing problems of his time, particularly in the fields of building and transport. Despite the groundbreaking inventiveness of so much of his work, it was not until Fuller’s large-scale, multifunctional geodesic domes began to appear around the world in the 1950s that he really made his name.
During his life Fuller worked with – and influenced – such diverse talents as the architect Norman Foster, the sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi and the composer John Cage. Since his death in 1983 the relevance of his radical discoveries, inventions and proposals has been accentuated with the realisation that the world’s resources are not infinite and must be handled with the greatest economy and care. Fuller is now cited as an inspiration by equally diverse figures from the industrial designer Marc Newson, to the humanitarian designers who put his ideas into practice in disaster zones all over the world in their work for Architecture for Humanity.
Born in Massachusetts in 1895 to a wealthy and patrician New England family, Fuller horrified his parents by failing to graduate from Harvard University, as Fuller boys had done for over a century. At the age of 22 in 1917, he married his sweetheart Anne Helwett and joined the US Navy for wartime service. Fuller had loved boats ever since childhood visits to his grandmother’s island-farm off the coat of Maine. He later claimed that he garnered all his technical expertise to the navy. His service as a naval communications officer and gunboat commander was a determining influence on his life and work. Fuller believed that the most significant developments in scientific knowledge were a direct result of the experience of sea travel and the desire to reach new shores. The seafarer had to develop solutions to a different set of challenges than the stay-at-home “landlubber”: the ability to harness the wind, to navigate by the stars and continuously to improve the ability of ships and their navigational instruments to cope with what Fuller described as the “Fluid Geography” of the oceans.
After leaving the navy in 1922, Fuller co-founded the Stockade Building Company to produce lightweight building materials. The knowledge he acquired there was to prove invaluable to his later experiments with design and architecture. Disaster struck in 1927 when Fuller lost his job at Stockade. At the age of 32 he found himself on the shore of Lake Michigan wondering whether to end his life there. Fuller took a decision to devote his life to others by embarking on “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity”.
Fuller decided to concentrate on the field he knew best, construction. The following year he made his first patent application for the 4D tower, a lightweight, prefabricated, multi-storey apartment tower to be delivered anywhere in the world by airship. Once delivered the towers would generate their own light and heat with an independent sewage disposal system.
From then on, ideas and inventions seemed to flow from him in a continuous stream. Driven by his philosophy of “more for less”, Fuller threw himself wholeheartedly into a quest for a new way of housing mankind, in “Lightful Houses” so-called because they were full of light, lightweight, delightful and so forth. This programme and his accompanying vision of a world united by the most modern means of transport and telecommunication evolved into Fuller’s philosophy of four-dimensional, or 4D design. He defined this as thinking in time instead of only the three dimensions of space: thinking of consequences for humanity instead of only immediate personal gain.
The project that made Fuller’s name was the 1929 Dymaxion House, which he unveiled in the interior decorating department of the Chicago department store, Marshall-Field. The name Dymaxion – Dy(namic)max(imum)ion – was coined by the marketer Waldo Warren who, after listening to Fuller talk for two days, devised endless combinations of syllables taken from his highly idiosyncratic vocabulary. Finally he found the word which seemed to him best to dramatise Fuller’s personality. Made from lightweight steel, duraluminium and plastic and suspended from a central mast from which the rooms radiated in a hexagonal plan, the Dymaxion House was conceived not as private property, but rather as temporary, transportable space that could be rented – rather like a telephone issued by a telephone company.
As well as housing, Fuller was determined to design a revolutionary new car. In 1928 he had conceived a flying car with inflatable wings which was modified in subsequent drawings into a streamlined road vehicle the rear of which would rise in an aerodynamic lift to ‘fly’ steered by a rudder as the front rolled. In 1933 he presented his plans for the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car with rear steering and front-wheel drive powered by a Ford engine. The aerodynamic shape, most closely related to high performance yachts, came partly from Fuller’s co-designer, the shipbuilder Starling Burgess. The rave reviews of the car’s styling, speed and manoeuvrability were tragically undermined when the first of three prototypes was rammed and overturned, killing the driver, outside the entrance to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Undeterred, Fuller continued his experiments and gained an international reputation for his work in lightweight, inexpensively and speedily constructed housing. In 1940, in anticipation of the bombing of British cities, he was asked by the British War Relief Organization to design an emergency shelter. Fuller worked with the Butler Company of Kansas City, which manufactured grain silos of curved galvanised steel, to develop a self-supporting structure in a circular shape designed to provide the most advantageous relationship between circumference and interior space. The unit was designed to be set up and taken down easily. Metal for its construction was, however, never made available by the British Government as it was needed for the production of armaments. When the US entered World War II, Fuller’s units were commissioned as emergency accommodation for the air force.
As relationships between the superpowers fluctuated during the war, Fuller became convinced of the need to develop a world map on which the whole globe could be seen at once; a map better suited than the standard Mercator Projection to the representation of global relationships. The Dymaxion World Map was his attempt to resolve the problem of how best to represent a spherical world on a flat surface, with true scale, true direction and correct configuration. In orthodox cartography to present one of these attributes accurately others must be distorted but The Dymaxion World Map’s distortions are distributed proportionally within each of its fourteen segments.
With the end of the war in sight, Fuller returned to the development of standardised, lightweight, cost-effective homes. No other plan for a model home has moved as far away from traditional architecture towards industrial design as the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine – or Wichita House – that he developed with the technologically-advanced Beech Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas. On presentation of the prototype of a full-size family dwelling weighing just four tonnes, Fuller Houses Inc. received thousands of orders, but Fuller insisted that the design needed perfecting before production could commence. The banks baulked at the delay and withdrew their support. A Wichita businessman bought the prototype, reassembled it on his own land and lived there with his six children for the rest of his life. In 1992 it was rescued by the Henry Ford Museum from a colony of raccoons.
From 1948 onwards, Fuller taught at numerous colleges and universities. His teaching system was unacademic and, as a pioneer of project-based teaching, he often merged student exercises with his own research. Charismatic and enthusiastic, Fuller was an inspiring teacher and formed many friendships, particularly in the experimental atmosphere of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he worked with the composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and the artists and former Bauhaus teachers, Josef and Anni Albers. The collaboration of his teaching colleagues and the contributions of students like Kenneth Snelson, Don Richter and Shoji Sadao were crucial to Fuller’s work in the 1950s, notably in the development of his most successful project, the geodesic dome, the first large scale versions of which were built at Black Mountain College.
Hailed at the time as the lightest, strongest and most cost-effective structure, the geodesic dome was designed to cover the maximum possible space without internal supports. The bigger it is, the lighter and stronger it becomes. The first full-size geodesic structure was completed – with a 49 feet diameter – in Montreal in 1950, the following year one was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1954 Fuller constructed two domes at the Milan Triennale exhibition made from six pieces of corrugated cardboard pre-cut in the US and folded into a small packing case for transport to Italy. Fuller’s hope was that such domes could one day be manufactured at the rate of 3,000 a day. By 1957 he had refined the design so that an enormous auditorium-sized geodesic dome was assembled in 22 hours in Honolulu.
Hundreds of thousands of geodesic domes have since been constructed all over the world, often in extreme conditions, to offer inexpensive shelter to homeless families in Africa, or to house weather stations in 180 mph winds in the Antarctic. In 1960 Fuller designed a dome of two miles in diameter to encase midtown Manhattan in a controlled climate. He calculated that it would pay for itself within ten years simply by saving on snow removal costs. The most imposing of his actual domes was the geodesic three-quarter sphere – 61 metres high and 76 metres in diameter – that he designed with Sadao to house the US Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67. A filigree network of steel rods was formed of an outer layer of triangular units and hexagonal units linked to an inner layer of hexagons. A skin of acrylic panels ensured total transparency apart from the occasional closure of triangular blinds programmed to react to very bright sunlight. It was a step toward Fuller’s ideal of a geodesic membrane as sensitive and adaptable as human skin.
Alongside these practical projects, Fuller delved deeper and deeper into his own particular form of natural science. Self-taught, and with little respect for specialised academic research, he developed his own way of questioning the material world. In 1948 his search for “a geometry as nature uses it” led him to discover the mathematical formula for “the closest packing of spheres”, showing how spheres compact together symmetrically and tangentially. This led to Fuller’s exploration of what he called the “Jitterbug transformation” and into primary research in the field of quantum mechanics.
It took some time for the natural sciences to catch up with the significance of such discoveries. In some cases recognition of the importance of Fuller’s scientific research came only after his death. By then he had registered 25 US patents, written 28 books, traveled around the globe 57 times and received 47 honourary doctorates as well as numerous other awards including a 1969 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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1895 Born at Milton in Massachusetts.
1917 Marries Anne Hewlett and joins the US Navy for wartime service.
1922 Co-founds the Stockade Building Company to produce lightweight building materials. The Fullers’ first daughter, Alexandra, dies after long illness.
1927 Personal crisis after losing his job at the Stockade Building Company. Birth of the Fullers’ second daughter, Allegra.
1928 Completion of the design for the four-dimensional Hexagonal House.
1933 Construction of the prototype for the Dymaxion car.
1939 The Dymaxion bathroom is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1940 Designs Dymaxion Deployment Units for the homeless in wartime Britain. Wartime restrictions prevents the units from being mass-produced.
1944 Starts a three-year process of planning and developing the Wichita Dwelling Machine in Wichita, Kansas
1948 Discovers the “Jitterbug transformation”, starts work on geodesic domes and builds the first Necklace Dome, a collapsible structure with flexible nodes.
1949 Appointed as Dean of the Summer Institute at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he befriends students and fellow teachers who will collaborate with him on his research.
1950 The first full-size geodesic structure – with a diameter of 49 feet – is built in Montreal.
1951 A geodesic dome is exhibited at Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1954 Construction of a dome over the corporate headquarters of the Ford Motor Company at Dearborn, Michigan. Development of an icosahedron (20-faced) projection for the Dymaxion World Map.
1960 Designs the Dome over Manhattan, which is to be two miles in diameter.
1966 Construction of the US Pavilion for Expo ’67 in Montreal.
1969 Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
1975 Fuller’s Everything I Know lecture is recorded with a playing time of 42 hours.
1982 Works on the Autonomous House project with the architect Norman Foster.
1983 Buckminster Fuller dies in Los Angeles of a heart attack. His wife, Anne Hewlett, dies two days later.
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The website of the Buckminster Fuller Institute is at bfi.org
Joachim Krauuse, Claude Lichtenstein, Your Private Sky: R. Buckminster Fuller, Lars Müller Publishing, 2000
Martin Pawley, Buckminster Fuller, Trefoil Publications, 1990
R. Buckminster Fuller, Grunch of Giants, Critical Path Publishing, 2004
Silver Burdett, Buckminster Fuller, Prentice Hall + IBD, 1993
J. Baldwin, Bucky’s Works: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today, John Wiley + Sons, 1997
Nathan Aaseng, More With Less: Future World of Buckminster Fuller, Lerner, 1985
R. Buckminster Fuller, Intuition, Impact Publishers, 1983
R. Buckminster Fuller, Answar Dil, Humans In Universe, Mouton de Gruyter, 1983
R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Dutton Books, 1978
Athena V. Lord, Pilot for Spaceship Earth: R. Buckminster Fuller, Architect, Inventor and Poet, Macmillan, 1978
R. Buckminster fuller, Robert W. Marks, Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Doubleday & co, 1973
R. Buckminster Fuller, Approaching the Benign Environment, Collier-Mac, 1971
© Design Museum