A Fuller Interview
During his 85 years Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller has been labeled a crackpot and a genius, but he has never been ignored. A designer, philosopher, inventor, poet, he has won numerous awards for contributions to architecture and design. Fuller has been awarded 39 honorary degrees from universities throughout the United States and England, and has written 19 books and 115 major articles. Yet he never got past his freshman year of college.
Bucky and his wife, Anne, are both descendants of America’s first families. His father, a Massachusetts leather merchant, died when Bucky was 12. After attending Milton Academy, Bucky entered Harvard and encountered problems; his Milton class mates would not associate with him because he was not invited to join a club. “The club system was only for very rich people,” he says, “and as I was not rich, I felt out of place. When I found out my friends felt sorry for me I couldn’t stand it. I began cutting classes and going to New York, where I hung around the stage doors of popular Broadway shows. I used my Russian wolfhound as bait. and when the girls stopped to pet the dog, I became acquainted with them. When I cut my exams to see dancer Marilyn Miller, I made a great hit with my classmates but not with the Harvard officials, and they asked me to leave.”
In 1914 Bucky met beautiful Anne Hewlitt, daughter of prominent New York architect James Monroe Hewlitt. “I thought he was very nice,” says Anne, “but we all had lots of beaus then. And everybody knew the war was coming so it made us a little more serious and a little more gay at the same time. We felt we should have fun while we could.” They married in 1917, and Bucky joined the Navy.
After the end of the war he worked for a meat packing company in New York, then went into the building business with his father-in-law. Shortly after, the couple’s first daughter, Alexandra, became ill and died, and the company failed after constructing 240 homes. “I wasn’t a businessman,” he admits, “and by the time our second child, Allegra, was born in 1927, we were penniless. I decided I’d better get out of the way, because I was a disgrace to my family and would never make any money.”
Instead of committing suicide as he had intended, Bucky decided to use his accumulated experience for the benefit of others. In 1928 he designed a single-family house with rooms hung from a central mast that could be easily moved if the owner wanted to change locations. It was air-conditioned, and featured a nearly waterless bathroom with a 10-minute bath supplied by a fog gun. When a scale model was displayed at Marshall Field’s department store In Chicago, it was christened Dymaxion combination of dynamic and maximum. The word became Bucky’s personal trademark.
In 1932, he designed the three-wheel Dymaxion car. The steering wheel was connected to a single rear wheel, enabling the car to circle within a small radius. It could run at 120 miles per hour when equipped with a standard Ford 90-horsepower engine. In 1938, an accident unrelated to the car’s design killed a passenger and Bucky abandoned both the Dymaxion house and car, unconventional ideas during a very conventional time, had attracted the nation’s attention. His fame led to jobs as assistant director of research and development at the Phelps Dodge Corp. and as technical consultant to Fortune magazine. Again captivating the public consciousness, he created the Dymaxion Airocean World Map in 1934. It showed the world as a flat surface without distortion, and was the first map to be granted a U.S. patent.
Bucky next returned to an idea he had first developed during the 1920s-the geodesic dome. Eventually the Ford Motor Co. commissioned him to build a dome over its Dearborn plant rotunda. A request from the Marine Corps for a plastic and fiberglass enclosure that could be delivered by a helicopter followed in 1954. And in 1959 the dome served as the stage for one of the decade’s great media spectaculars, the Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debate. Another now houses the Bicentennial information and exhibition center in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square.
Financially secure, Bucky was able to turn his attention to writing. In 1961 Harvard named him Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry; three volumes of verse followed. The Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970) found a receptive audience in the ecologically minded college students who empathized with his theories of universal interdependence. And In 1975, Bucky published what many consider his major theoretical work, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking.
Today he works as hard as ever on developments to enhance the environment, recently committing himself to more than 20 speaking engagements within a period of eight months. He and Anne live near their daughter and two grandchildren in Pacific Palisades, CA, and spend a portion of each summer in their house on one of the islands off the cost of Maine.
Q. What has it been like living with Bucky Fuller for years?
Anne. I have really enjoyed it. He’s a great worrier, all these tremendous problems are on his mind and some of them weigh very heavily. But my mind is not that way; I’m more cheery and not too concerned with weighty problems. I realize there’s not much I can do about them, so my philosophy is to enjoy life.
Q. You’ve often talked about the lag between invention and acceptance. Why is that?
Bucky. Nature takes time. For example, It takes nine months to make a human baby and there are all kinds of gestation rates in the animal kingdom. In the world of electronics, where Invisible electromagnetic waves move at 186,000 miles per second, there is only a two-year lag between invention and its industrial use. In aeronautics, where you move about 1,000 miles per hour, there is a five-year lag. And that is desirable. It takes time to prove that something is safe.
We can see the second hand on a clock moving, but we can’t see the minute hand move. When you can’t see something move, you don’t get out of the way. The faster a thing moves, the more chances you have to see what is wrong. So we find that in a single-family dwelling there is at least a 50-year lag because of the least visibility of motion.
Q. But wasn’t the geodesic dome accepted very quickly?
Bucky. Oh yes, but that was only a demonstration of my structural principle for the single-family dwelling. The Dymaxion house, an autonomous dwelling with no plumbing, no water pipe connections, has still not been accepted. But its time has come because now, in addition to having a critical housing shortage, people can no longer pay for their utilities.
Q. Why did you and Anne leave the dome in which you were living in Carbondale Illinois?
Bucky. Because my number one concern is not me. I travel 90 percent of the time and have to leave Anne alone. Now, when I’m away, Anne is near Allegra.
Anne. We enjoyed living in the dome. It was easy to take care of, and even though it was only 1,000 square feet, it seemed like a big house and we didn’t feel closed in. We had a foyer, two baths, a kitchen, a dining room, an enormous living room and a library upstairs.
Q. Have you felt hampered by the lack of a college education?
Bucky. No, never. I developed my own knowledge of physics and mathematics. In fact, I feel that most scientists are still in the dark ages. In 1953, when I lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty club, there were about 300 scientists in the room and I asked, “Is there anyone present who has not seen the sun go down?” There were no hands raised and I was shocked. I said, “You have known for 500 years that the sun does not go down and yet you have done absolutely nothing as educators to coordinate your senses with your knowledge. When you tell your children to look at the sun going down, you are deceiving them. What kind of educators are you?”
Q. Does our educational system hinder original thinking?
Bucky. No question about it. Every child is born to be a comprehensivist. The mind deals with what you can’t see as well as what you can. But how do we teach the children? When a child asks, “Why do the galaxies do what they do?” the daddy answers, “Wait until you get to school.” Then the school says, “Never mind about the universe. Let’s talk about whether you’re going to get an A or a B or a D.”
We have learned in biology and anthropology that extinction has been the consequence of overspecialization and our specialization is leading to extinction of the species. The only thing humans need is the ability to think. Unfortunately they think mostly about how to make a living and get along in the system rather than about what the universe is trying to tell us.
A newspaperman wanted to know how I interacted with children, so he brought two boys, 11 and 12, and a 10 year-old girl to our house. They had read some of my books before they met me. I asked the 12-year-old what he was most interested in and he said he wanted to be a magician. The 11-year-old was interested in electronics, but the girl said, “I am a comprehensivist like you. I am interested in everything.”
It’s interesting that the first two were born before we got to the moon and the girl was born after. When I was born, you would have been called a lunatic if you said we could touch the moon. This is a completely new world. When we got to the moon, we saw ourselves for the first time and that made a big change in the attitudes of the young. I’ve gotten many letters from 8 and 10-year-olds saying “Humanity can do anything it wants to do. Why can’t it make this earth work?”
Q. You’ve said that you look to the young people to improve world conditions. We were all young at one time. Why didn’t we do it?
Bucky. Because each successive child is born with a little less misinformation and conditioned reflex. I was told by grown-ups that it is inherently impossible for man to fly. Then the Wright brothers flew. I was told man would never reach the Poles. When I was 14, man got to the North Pole and when I was 16, he got to the South Pole. Now we have a little girl who was born after man went to the moon and she has absolute confidence that we can solve any problem by using the mind and perseverance.
Q. What do you feel has been your most significant contribution to society?
Bucky. Knowing ways to catch myself telling a lie to myself. But I never try to reform anybody else. We are born naked and helpless and are driven to learn by trial and error. We make mistakes, but that is healthy if you have the courage to admit you’ve made a mistake. I’d like to be remembered as an average, healthy human being who used what humans are given for the advantage of others.