Wednesday, March 17, 2010

“He had no intention to be mysterious; he just wanted to be clear”

Richard Buckminster Fuller is often described as the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century. I have made it no secret that his life and work are the inspiration behind this blog. Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Buckminster Fuller Institute -- most notably via the Buckminster Fuller Challenge -- Bucky continues to inspire people around the world to adopt comprehensive anticipatory approaches to solving society's most pressing problems.

Today's post offers an appreciation of the profound impact that Bucky's beloved Bear Island had on him. (GW)

Bucky's World

By Leslie Bowman and Tori Britton
Bangor Metro
March 2010

Buckminster Fuller was America’s most colorful green advocate long before the term was coined. His family’s summer home on Bear Island in Penobscot Bay provided a natural template for his wide-ranging mind, which produced 30 books, 28 patents, more than 150 awards and honorary degrees, and an intellectual legacy that continues to inspire new generations of scientists and inventors 27 years after his death.

Fuller is most famous for inventing the geodesic dome. Found on playgrounds throughout the world, and used in at least 50,000 buildings (including one at the South Pole), this structure can freely span large areas using the basic elements of the triangle, which Fuller identified as the most stable shape in nature. The U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal was the first major geodesic dome demonstration. Fuller called it his “Taj Mahal to Anne,” in honor of his wife. Epcot Center in Florida, is another famous example.

But the geodesic dome was just one of hundreds of Fuller inventions. He believed that there were enough resources for all, contrary to the traditional Malthusian economic notion of scarcity. Late in life, he devised a curriculum for college students called “The World Game” with a premise that you could make the world work for 100% of humanity without environmental degradation or disadvantage to anyone.

Some of Fuller’s work, like the geodesic dome, has become part of our culture. His Dymaxion Map of the world (see above) presented Earth’s landmass without the distortion of previous flat maps. Fuller popularized terms like “synergy” and “spaceship Earth.” After his death, a molecule was discovered that is shaped like a geodesic dome, and was named a Fullerene in his honor. This molecule, also known as the “Bucky Ball,” is an important part of nanotechnology—a branch of science that is the logical conclusion to Fuller’s idea of accomplishing more and more with less and less.

Certainly a man ahead of his time, and perhaps ahead of ours, “Bucky” Fuller was a world citizen, traveling extensively, meeting with national leaders, and speaking to large audiences. During decades of famously fascinating and long-winded lecture tours, he explained the wonders of the tetrahedron, complained about the absurdities of war and modern plumbing, and urged young scientists to use their skills for the good of humanity.

With his wife of 66 years, Anne Hewitt Fuller (the quiet and stabilizing force in his life), he lived many places including Carbondale, Illinois, in his 36-foot-diameter dome. But Maine was the one place he called home.

Summers at Bear Island

Fuller first visited Bear Island with his father and grandmother in 1904, at the age of 9. His grandmother, Caroline Matilda Wolcott, had purchased the island that year with the intention of establishing a family gathering place. Fuller would visit the island virtually every year of his life until his death at age 88, in 1983. In 2004, true to his grandmother’s wishes, over 350 family members and friends gathered on-island to celebrate the centennial.

Life on Bear Island was rustic, what we now call “off the grid.” The daily chores included carrying water from the well and cistern, gathering wood to tend the fires, and filling the kerosene lanterns. During Fuller’s childhood, the only means of communication to the island, which the family shared with other summer visitors, was mail—requiring a dory trip to a nearby island.

Ironically, traveling to Bear Island in the early days was far easier than today. Before WWI the family would leave by steamship from Boston Harbor at 5 p.m., and by 3 a.m. arrive at Owls Head Light at the entrance of Penobscot Bay, where they would dock at Rockland Harbor and change boats for a short trip to Bear Island. Today airport connections and traffic on Route One have made the journey more complicated.

Consisting of 42 acres, Bear Island is part of a small archipelago in East Penobscot Bay, about 11 miles east of Camden. Along with forests and fields, the island has a dock and several traditional New England wood frame buildings. Though Fuller once built a 21-foot tensegrity dome that was recently reconstructed, none of his designs were used on the island for shelter. Bear Island’s draw, for Fuller, was its primitive simplicity.

During the family’s summer visits to the island, young Bucky farmed, fished, and took care of buildings and boats. As a young man, Fuller was particularly influenced by a year-round island caretaker named Jim Hardie, who demonstrated great drive for self-education and a relentless work ethic. He was a skillful builder and fisherman who could improvise to solve problems, a model of Yankee ingenuity.

Fuller especially loved boats, which were a preoccupation on the island. To him, they were models of invention and elegance, and the engineering principles he learned operating and tinkering with boats were foundational to his thinking.

There were several boats used for recreation and utility. Perhaps the most famous craft was the Wego, the family’s small power cruiser which was put into commission by the U.S. Navy in 1917 during WWI. She was commanded by captain Bucky and a small crew and served for about a year before being deemed too slow for service—but not before making a dramatic discovery of German refueling operations at Cross Island near Machiasport. Another vessel that Fuller designed to be stable in rough seas was called Rowing Needles. It was propelled like a rowboat but floated, like a catamaran, on two long pontoons. Fuller once said that he considered Rowing Needles to be his most refined invention—an exceptionally pure demonstration of his design philosophy.

The Making of an Original Thinker

The simplicity of his summers on Bear Island stands in sharp contrast to Fuller’s complicated life path.

Bucky was an original and obsessive thinker early on. At age 12, he began saving his correspondence, notes, and sketches, providing precious information about these early years on Bear Island. This archive would later become part of Fuller’s Dymaxion Chronofiles, a detailed record of his life that, at the time of his death, contained over 140,000 papers and 700 volumes.

While scientific thought and athletic pursuits came easily to him, fitting in socially did not. In 1913, Fuller entered Harvard University, then got himself kicked out by deliberately missing exams.

His family sent him to work as an apprentice millwright in a cotton mill in Quebec, presumably to teach him the value of his Harvard education. Instead, Fuller loved the tangible, physical work. Though accepted back at Harvard, he managed to get himself dismissed again, because, as his daughter Allegra Fuller Snyder would later explain, “he felt that all he was asked to do was memorize, not validate through experience.” Fuller joined the Navy Reserve and had a similar affinity for the hands-on. That same year, he married Anne Hewitt and immediately felt the pressure to become a worldly success. He started a company with his father-in-law specializing in lightweight building materials. The brilliant young inventor was no businessman, and five years later was ousted from the company.

That failure and the death of his and Anne’s 4-year-old daughter, Alexandra, brought Fuller to a crisis point. Fuller decided to stop trying to earn a living and instead, he said, “made a bargain with myself that I’d discover the principles operative in the universe and turn them over to my fellow man.”

Bucky Fuller had no money, and he and Anne had a newborn daughter, Allegra, but he would go on to keep his promise. For about a year he spoke as little as possible, and instead thought and wrote. In 1928, he emerged with a business plan and manifesto called 4D Time Lock, outlining his notion for a new type of low-cost, mass-produced housing, which he distributed in 200 mimeographed copies. This began a series of designs Fuller created using an approach he called Dymaxion—a combination of “dynamic,” “maximize,” and “ion.”

Dymaxion meant something that achieved the most dynamic benefit using the least amount of resources. His Dymaxion House was followed by the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car in 1933. (One of its first public demonstrations, featuring Amelia Earhart in the back seat, can be seen on YouTube.) A fatal hit-and- run accident involving a driver of a demo car squelched the project. Fuller was grieved over the loss of life, but unfazed by the loss of revenue.

In 1943, Fuller’s Dymaxion World Map was published in Life magazine, putting Fuller into the national spotlight. Later, a house he designed from airplane machinery and materials, called the Witchita House, was featured in Fortune magazine. Orders for the home came in, but Fuller wasn’t interested in selling his design, infuriating many. This was one of many times in his life when he could theoretically have made a fortune from his work, but couldn’t be bothered. His attitude about wealth was summarized in this oft-quoted Fullerism: “You can make money or you can make sense.”

Buckminster Fuller wanted to make sense, but much of his written work was difficult to comprehend. Part of what makes Fuller’s writing challenging is his compulsive need to describe things accurately. Terms like sunrise or sunset were maddening to Fuller, as the sun merely moves out of view. He preferred the term “sunclipse.” Fuller created his own unique language, redefining existing words or inventing new ones, and writing in cryptic phrases.

Allegra Fuller Snyder, Buckminster Fuller’s only living child, remembers what a struggle it was at times for her father to find the right word to say what he meant.

“I thought my father was like all fathers,” she says, but most people do not have to weigh each word to accurately express their experience.

“Daddy was a great teacher, always respecting the child’s mind,” she says. “He believed all children were born geniuses.” When listening to others, “he was very attentive and often asked for you to go deeper to experience the process of your thinking.” Snyder recalls having animated discussions where hands were flying and feet dancing. Snyder, in fact, went on to study dance and is today a leading dance ethnologist. When her father began giving lectures, she suggested that he use that same expressive body language that she had experienced. That coaching was crucial to his success in capturing an audience’s imagination.

Snyder acknowledges that his written language is also hard to follow and she is grateful that other writers have taken on the task to make his work more accessible. “He had no intention to be mysterious; he just wanted to be clear.”

Back to Bear

Everything always became clear for Buckminster Fuller on Bear Island. Throughout his life, even as he became more and more respected and in demand largely through the success of the geodesic dome, Fuller would make at least one annual pilgrimage to Maine, if only for a few days.

“Uncle Bucky loved being on Bear Island whenever he could,” says his niece Lucilla Fuller Marvel. “Bear was the one constant place he knew and cherished. We could feel his love for the island. It was home.”

In 1965, Calvin Tomkins, noted writer for The New Yorker magazine, spent four days on island with Bucky and clan. Tomkins’ famous account included daily trips to the men’s nude beach on the north side of the island, where he learned Bucky’s method of getting used to the frigid water: ”You go in and out quickly several times, warming up in between dips; after a while the pain becomes slightly less agonizing.”

Fuller would go to Bear Island many more times after that 1965 visit. He continued to write and lecture into his 80s. He did not truly slow down until his wife fell ill in 1983. He died of a heart attack at her hospital bedside; she died 36 hours later.

Their daughter Allegra Fuller Snyder founded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) the year her father died. Today, the Buckminster Fuller Institute is the starting place for anyone wanting to continue his work. Based in California, with an extensive web presence, BFI has just opened a new study center in Brooklyn, New York. Among their programs is the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which awards a $100,000 prize each year to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

While Snyder’s love and admiration for her father is evident, she seems uncomfortable with the notion that he was uniquely gifted.

“He believed he was just a regular human being and that anyone could accomplish what he did.”


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