Bucky got his start in the sheet metal trade as a machinist, and had a hard time fitting in to college, ultimately getting expelled from Harvard. He worked as a mechanic and meat packer, and did a stint in the Navy during WW I. Ultimately he got a Sc. D. from Bates.
He got his big break while teaching in North Carolina in the late ’40s. He was a professor at Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts college that produced many notable poets and artists. He began experimenting with geodesic domes with artist Kenneth Snelson and became the technology’s superstar advocate. For a while afterward Fuller was called the inventor of the geodesic dome, but this wasn’t true. He did, however, develop much of the mathematical research regarding geodesic domes and received a patent relating his work.
An early environmentalist, Fuller tried to get people to think of the Earth as being a spaceship because it flew through space, had finite resources, and required regular maintenance to continue functioning. He even tried to get people to use “out” instead of “up” because when we go up we’re really traveling away from the Earth’s gravitational center.
Bucky was a noted eccentric, allegedly wearing 3 watches and briefly adopting polyphasic sleep in attempt to have more awake time. He called it Dymaxion sleep. Fuller used the neologism Dymaxion — Dynamic Maximum Tension — throughout his career as sort of a futuristic brand name for his ideas.
Fuller’s legacy can be seen anywhere there’s one of the geodesic domes he loved, although their popularity never surged the way he’d hoped — they’re impractical for houses and leaked terribly. Scientists named the C60 buckyball (also known as fullerenes, or more properly, buckminsterfullerenes) after Fuller.
Happy birthday, Bucky!
(The image above was painted by Boris Artzybasheff for a 1964 Time magazine cover, was donated to the National Portrait Gallery and was used for a 2004 U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp.)