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Fuller, Buckminster (1895-1983)

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Buckminster Fuller
Fuller looks out at the world through a “tensegrity” model (1971, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).

Richard Buckminster Fuller, who discovered the most economical way of being able to use space, was born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1895. A Unitarian, he attended Milton Academy, Harvard College, and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. However, he found that formal education got in the way of his being able to educate himself to the full potentiality of the powers that were within him.

When one of the senior members of The Architects Collaborative in Harvard Square—an area which is noted for its architects—found out that Buckminster Fuller was going to be recorded for national public television and radio broadcast at the historic Meeting House of the First Parish in Cambridge, he said, “I think he is the Thomas Alva Edison of our time.” Marshall McLuhan called Bucky “the 20th century Leonardo da Vinci.”

Nonetheless, Buckminster Fuller was no mere technological inventor; his thought has profoundly affected our awareness of the amazing, emerging social and environmental potential of humanity.

It’s important to note that in 1927 a drastic change took place in his life. He decided that he was not going to commit suicide but committed his life to the furtherance of humanity. He found ingenious ways of doing that repeatedly.

People began to say, “Oh Bucky, you’re a thousand years ahead of your time!” A decade later, he noted, people were saying, “Oh, Mr. Fuller, you’re a century ahead of your time.” Now, he says that they said, “My, you certainly are up to date!”


Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller in 1962 (courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).

What follows is what he said in 1980 at that Cambridge Forum national broadcast at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Harvard Square.

Humanity is in great crisis. We’re in great crisis because evolution is intent on integrating all the human beings who for thousands of years were deployed remotely from one another in finding their own ways of surviving.

Now, she’s integrating all of humanity. Earth is going to integrate all kinds of different credos and all the different colored skins. Evolution is intent on doing that. This brings about a great crisis due to the enormous amount of conditioned reflex in humanity—the relative ignorance that’s still dominant in human affairs.

Evolution is also intent on making all of humanity economically successful. There are so many, many centuries, or thousands of years of humanity operating on the basis that there’s not enough to go around; it has to be you or me. We’ve had all the great political institutions, and soforth, organized that way, so society does not understand. Those who are in power tend to amass even more power rather than yielding to evolution’s apparent intent to make all humanity an economic success.

Go back to William Ellery Channing and his time; he graduated from Harvard just two years before the opening of the nineteenth century. When Ellery Channing had been out of Harvard University seven years, we had the battle of Trafalgar. The British Empire was established and was maintained for a hundred and seventeen years. It was established by virtue of ships being able to master the lines of supply of the three-quarters of the earth which are covered with water. There had been incredible battles for all this mastery, and it finally came to the British.

Behind military strategy, they had the economic strategy for the development of the British Empire, the first Empire in history on which the sun never set. If you realize what you were taught about empires in school—about Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and so forth—they were all flat empires. They were just a part of Europe, Northern Africa, and a little Asia. They were flat empires that went to infinity. You didn’t know where the edges were, or what went on beyond the edges. Because you seemed to live in infinity, if you didn’t like what was going on, there were an infinite number of chances that if you prayed in the right way you might come out all right. But we haven’t.


Fuller and the Dymaxion
Fuller stands in front of his famous Dymaxion map which shows the world without distortion. (1971, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).

Dymaxion map
Fuller’s Dymaxion map in color.

The time when the British Empire was established, was also the time after Magellan had first been around the world. It was the first time we had a great empire which was a sphere.

The political and economic strategy of the British Empire was that of the East India Company. The Company had a college, and still has in England. You can go on that campus, find the room of the East India Company directors, which is very impressive, and see the long table where they made many decisions about that British Empire. At that time Thomas Malthus was a professor of political economics for the East India Company, and in 1800, five years before Trafalgar, he wrote his first book. In 1810, five years after Trafalgar, he wrote a book confirming his theory. He was the first human being in the history of humanity to have the total vital statistics from a closed-system spherical empire within his hands. He said it was perfectly clear, and he was deeply aware of the fact, that we’re dealing in a sphere which is a closed system in contradistinction to a plane going to infinity. He said, “Quite clearly, humanity is multiplying itself at a geometrical rate and increasing its life support on an arithmetical rate. Quite clearly, the majority of humans are destined to have to live out their years in great want and pain.”

There were very few people who were interested in what Malthus was saying. In fact, it was pretty much classified information, only of interest to those who were ambitious to try to take the British Empire away from the British. There was a general illiteracy of humanity at that time. Very few people would have been able to read it, anyway. This information really remained almost classified and secret for a long, long time.

Forty years later, we have Darwin promulgating his theory of evolution, explaining it as a consequence of the survival of only the fittest species, and of the fittest individual within those species. Darwin said he did not mean any economic inference, but the economists said that it had obvious economic inference. We have Karl Marx saying, “I now accept Thomas Malthus’ scientific statement; I have to think of it as absolutely valid. I also accept Darwin; quite clearly the workers are the fittest to survive. They know how to handle the tools; they know how to nurture the seed. These other people are parasites.”

Fuller with students
Fuller discusses his theories with a group of students from Southern Illinois University (1971, courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).

Those other people said, “We’re not parasites. According to Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we are on top of the heap because we are the fittest. The workers are very dull, they don’t have enough imagination. What is needed is some vision and daring and cunning and enterprise.” So they said, “We’re going to stay on top of the heap.”

This, then brought about the two great political divisions of humanity since the time of Channing. We have the Socialists and the Capitalists. You can call it Communist and Private Enterprise, or any way you want to call it, but each of these great ideologies says: “Although you personally may not like our system, we are convinced that we have the fairest, most logical, most ingenious way of coping with lethal inadequacy of life support on our planet. Because there are those who disagree diametrically on how to cope, this problem can only be resolved by trial of arms as to which system is fittest to survive.” That is why for the last thirty years Russia and the United States spent a sum now totaling six trillion four hundred billion dollars to buy the highest scientific capability of humanity in order to develop the means of killing the most people at the greatest distance in the shortest time. A very unworthwhile endeavor of humanity.

Ten years ago, it became clearly demonstrable, engineering-wise, that with a ten year engineering—or as I call it design-revolution—taking the metals that have been proliferated into armaments, melting them up, so that within ten years we could have all humanity living at a higher standard of living than human beings have ever experienced before, and on a sustainable basis. During that ten years we could phase out forever all further uses of fossil fuels and atomic energy. We could live entirely on our energy income. I’ve made this public announcement on many, many platforms. I’ve been checked-up by many competent people who have found my figures to be correct. What I do know is, it does not have to be you or me, ever, ever again. War is obsolete. All the necessity of humanity to rationalize selfishness, how and why your family should exist as other families, should not carry on. We’ve had to do all this on the mistaken assumption that it had to be you or me. Then I began to find that nobody was paying any serious attention to me except a young world that was very pleased to know they had an option.

Epcot Center
The Epcot Center: an example of Fuller’s Geodesic dome structure.

Studying the whole thing, you find that all big government, all big politics, all big religion, almost all big business, would find it absolutely devastating to their activity to have humanity a success. “You poor kid, come on down, I’ll get you a job at City Hall. Come on down, and I’ll give you a turkey dinner; I’ll get you into Heaven.” So, I began to realize this also in big government tax hungry to take care of all its big bureaucracies. All those in bureaucracy want to have their jobs keep on. Neither government nor big business could see any way of putting meters between you and your energy income, between you and the wind, or between you and the sun. So I find that while it’s clearly demonstrable that we really can get on with our energy income, that big government and big business are doing nothing serious about it whatsoever.

How do we get the information to humanity that we really do have the option to make it? The means of doing it is to realize that 99 percent of humanity doesn’t understand science. They don’t understand science because science has a language—a mathematical language—that the 99 percent can’t read. Therefore, they think that science is really something new, and they don’t know that all that science has ever found out is that the universe is the most incredibly reliable technology—so reliable as to be the only 100 percent efficient absolutely continuous system universe.

The majority think the word technology is something new. They equate it only with weapons, or machines to compete for their jobs. They say “I’m against it.” If we’re going to make and exercise our option, it has to be done by humanity. With our educational system we’re going to have to get it clear to humanity that science and technology are necessary to understand what its options are.

I find our educational system incredibly ignorant (saying this in the presence of my dear old Harvard). I’ve had the honor of being asked to speak to a number of scientific societies of real prominence. I’ve always asked those scientists, or any scientists present, “Who does not see the sun going down in the evening? If any of you do not, please show hands.” No hands. I say to those scientists, “You’ve had five hundred years that scientists have known that the sun’s not going down. You haven’t ‘downed’ anything to come up, coordinating your senses with your knowledge. What are you doing telling all your children ‘sunset, sunrise’? You’re deceiving all your children. What’s the matter with your kind of education? It’s five hundred years behind design.”

So, we’re in for a very great revolution in education, in our technology, in evolution, where all humanity, instead of being specialized, is cultivated in what every child wants to be: a comprehensivist. Comprehensive information and intelligence now are only in the hands of those who are in great power—and using that power to keep everybody else conquered and kept conquered by keeping all the specialists and keeping them divided. All these things are going to have to be overcome in the next ten years. The curve of acceleration is like that; probably a fourth power greater acceleration of human affairs. Humans were born with beautiful minds as well as brains, with access to the great laws of design of the universe itself. No other creature has such capability. We quite clearly have a very important function to fulfill. We were deliberately designed to be born naked, helpless, ignorant, to learn only by trial and error, being given hunger and thirst to drive us to make the trial and error. We’ve now come to the point where humanity is about ready to graduate into a comprehensive functioning of all of our great beautiful minds.


Fuller at Boston College's graduation
Fuller addresses Boston College’s 1969 graduating class (courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).

I was born here in 1895. I was the first generation of my family to go to Harvard, and I tell you that when I was young what was fundamental, what was reality, was everything you could see, smell, touch, and hear. The year I was born X-rays were discovered, but they didn’t make any newspaper. Nobody knew that it was going to amount to anything—you couldn’t see them anyway. When I was three, the electrons were discovered. That didn’t make any newspapers. Nobody knew that was going to amount to anything. Marconi had invented theoretical wireless the year I was born; but didn’t get the first SOS until I was twelve years of age.

I was eight years of age when the Wright brothers flew. I was seven when the first automobile came into Boston. Out of seven hundred in my class here at Harvard, entering in 1913, two had automobiles. One of them was Ray Stanley, whose father invented the Stanley Steamer, so that was logical. Automobiles were anything but for everybody. We didn’t have any kind of roads except dust roads. Once in a while somebody was able to get through to a place like New York after getting mired and pulled out by horses.

Since that time in America and the world, the electron began to be of prominence, and we began to learn something about the invisible world. While you couldn’t see it, the human mind and instruments began to open up a greater range of reality, ah, but invisible reality.

US Pavilion model
Fuller and other architects present the model for the US Pavilion in the 1967 Canadian Exhibition (courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).

I was brought up here in this particular world—this Cambridge and Milton where I went to school—where my mother and all the schoolteachers said, “Darling, never mind what you think. Listen, we’re trying to teach you.” The working assumption of the older people was that the children’s thinking was very unreliable.

Suddenly evolution does something absolutely amazing here, when the young discover that the grown-ups don’t know what it’s all about. So we have the young world doing its own thinking; and without any experience, it had to make many mistakes. But it’s getting now where it’s not being politically exploited the way it was at first. I find the young everywhere around the world are completely intent in thinking about the total world. They’re not impressed with local nations anymore. There’s a young world coming along, each child born successively in the presence of less misinformation. Just think, until I was eight years of age, I had been told it’s inherently impossible for man to fly. I’ve had undue, enormous amounts of misinformation. Each child, now, is being born in the presence of a great deal more reliable information.

I’m getting letters now—not very often, about five a year—from children who were born after humans got to the moon. How they find I’m someone they can write to I don’t know, but they do, and they write incredibly beautiful letters, and the syntax couldn’t be better. They say they are familiar with the critical path of all the things that had to be done before the blast-off to get humanity over to the moon and back safely. They say, “Humanity can do anything it needs to do; why don’t we make this thing work?” So a young world is coming along which may very likely exercise that option.

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library:

Fuller, Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Fuller, Buckminster. Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity. New York: Batnam Books, 1969; London: Penguin Books, 1970.