The Lost Inventions of Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller sought patents for his works to document in an enduring form what an individual could invent for the betterment of humanity. A primary resource for Fuller’s patents is the book Inventions, the Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller. Inventions serves as the framework for this three-part essay. Comparing the description of Fuller’s work found in that book with this essay will be most instructive. Otherwise uncredited page numbers are from this book. Dates following patent numbers are the date of the patent being granted. Supplementary material comes from The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller and many other sources. Part one of this essay will feature patents found in Inventions that were made by and assigned to Fuller.
All of Fuller’s patents are lost in some way. At minimum, all of Fuller’s patents are lost in that they have expired. Many of Fuller’s patents fail to mention earlier patents by other inventors. Some of Fuller’s patents are lost because they have never gone into production for their intended purpose. The patent for the geodesic dome is to be found under the title “Building Construction,” which has likely caused some researchers difficulty in finding it. Other patents are lost because they are under documented.
Many of the illustrations in Inventions are not described in the book itself. The photograph on the front cover is a 36′ geodesic dome made by students at the University of Minnesota and assembled in Aspen, Colorado in 1952. Additional photographs of this dome can be found in Dymaxion World illustrations 334-339. The end papers show the Quantico paperboard dome of 1954 (see A Study of Shelter Logistics for Marine Corps Aviation). Page vi shows Fuller with a partially-assembled model of the 4D House in New York City in 1929. Page xi shows Fuller at Black Mountain College in 1948. Pages xvii and xviii appear to be Fuller at the Montreal World’s Fair dome. It is unknown where the photographs on pages xiv, xxvi-xxvii, xxxi and xxxii were taken.
The Dymaxion Map is titled Cartography in patent 2,393,676 (29 January 1946). Although Fuller wanted to employ an undistorted map in his efforts to coordinate people’s needs with existing resources, and although the Dymaxion Map is a worthy addition to the history of cartography, it is not a map free of distortion. All flat maps of curved surfaces are distorted. The Dymaxion Map distorts in a novel way, but it still distorts. Fuller claims that after the Dymaxion Map appeared in Life magazine it was described as “pure invention” by “several great experts.” This description was used by Fuller’s patent attorney to convince the Patent Office Fuller’s work deserved a patent. Fuller’s patent attorney , Donald W. Robertson, wrote a book on his 25-year association with Fuller titled The Mind’s Eye of Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s “pure invention” claim does not appear in The Mind’s Eye. Robertson quotes Fuller saying “The problem of the navigator is how to sail or fly the shortest course, which on a conventional chart will be a curved line. I simply design an unconventional chart which is so constructed tha tall future navigators can find their courses as straight lines. This means that I will need a new kind of map projection in which all great circles of a sphere will be seen as straight lines.” Fuller claimed that his 1947 world map patent was the first to be granted since 1900, when the U. S. Patent office ruled all possible methods had been considered. But Allan C. Clark had been granted patent 2,369,103 in February 1945 for “flat map sections which may be detachably assembled upon a support to form globe maps.” And on 12 December 1924 Samuel W. Balch had been grated patent 1,610,413 for a map with the following features…
For the purposes of navigation it is important to have maps or charts on flat or plane sheets which fulfill three mathematical conditions. First, the construction should be such that it will be convenient to draw on the map the course of the shortest sea-level line between any two points, and to ascertain the latitude and longitude at any intermediate point of the course. Such a line is commonly known as the arc of a great circle and would be if the earth were a true sphere but is in, fact a line to be otherwise defined since the earth approximates closely to a spheroid or ellipsoid of revolution, and will be termed a geodesic line. Second, it should be convenient to ascertain the angle at which any geodesic line crosses any intermediate meridian.
The patent specifies that the Dymaxion Map is “resolved into six equilateral square sections and eight equilateral triangular sections.” This does not describe the icosohedral Dymaxion Map (known as the Raleigh projection) that is often associated with patent 2,393,676. Inventions mentions the Dymaxion Map in Life magazine, but not one of the ways in which this “flat map shows [the] world in many perspectives.” Such as the “Jap Empire.” “The ruthless logic of the Jap imperialism is exposed by this layout of the Dymaxion World map.”
The Geodesic Dome is called Building Construction in patent 2,682,235 (29 June 1954). The photograph on page 128 was taken inside the Climatron in St. Louis, Missouri USA. The photograph on page 138-139 was taken outside the U. S. Pavilion at the Montreal World’s Fair. It is unknown where the photographs on pages 132, 1134-135 were taken. This U. S. patent was granted on 29 June 1954. The first patent for a geodesic dome was awarded to Walter Bauersfeld (1879-1959) in 1925. Bauersfeld’s patent is Reichspatentamt Patentschrift Nr. 415395 Klasse 37a Gruppe 2. A patent for Insulation for Spherical Tank Shells and Methods for Making the Same (2,470,986) was granted to J. O. Jackson on 24 May 1947. Jackson’s patent describes the faces of an icosahedron divided into any number of triangles, the projection of the vertices of these triangles outward until they intersect with the surface of a sphere, then connecting the points of intersection with radial lines forming the chords of great circles. The resulting “dome-like” structure is described as “less troublesome, costly, and wasteful” as conventional structures. Jackson’s patent, in turn, makes reference to patent 2,424,601 - Icosahedral Map by J. E. Crouch, granted on 29 July 1947.
The Paperboard Dome is called Building Construction in patent 2,881,717 (14 April 1959). The photograph on page 146 features the 1954 Quantico / Milan dome, which can be seen in illustrations 426-433 of Dymaxion World. The twenty-foot paperboard dome and the Lower East Side gang that built it mentioned by Fuller is described at lenght in CHARAS by Syeus Mottel.
The Plydome is called Self-Strutted Geodesic Plydome in patent 2,905,113 (22 September 1959). Dymaxion World illustrations 435-442 show other plydomes. The Geodesic Plydome chapel of Colombian Fathers in illustration 447 was built in 1957.
The Catenary (Geodesic Tent) is called Geodesic Tent in patent 2,914,074 (24 November 1959). The Alaskan dome mentioned by Fuller was built by Synergetics Inc. of Raleigh NC USA in 1956. The 100-foot diameter dome was erected, disassembled, shipped and re-assembled in Afghanistan, Algeria, El Salvador (twice), France, Osaka (Japan), Peru, Syria, Thailand, Tokyo (Japan) and Uruguay before its use in the 1967 Alaskan Centennial. This was one of the most field-tested domes ever made and there is no record of it having given sub-standard performance at any time. One wonders what the town of Fairbanks did with the dome after it was disassembled. The second Dymaxion Car vanished for decades. Perhaps the Alaska dome will likewise make a dramatic reappearance.
The Octet Truss is called Synergetic Building Construction in patent 2,986,241 (30 May 1961). Fuller claims that he owned a trademark, copyright and patent on the octet truss and that this was granted in part because he had shipped the structure across state lines. Shipping an invention across state lines is not generally a prerequisite for being granted a patent. In Genius At Work: Images of Alexander Graham Bell by Dorothy Harley Eber, Fuller claims to have been unaware of Bell’s octahedron-tetrahedron towers and kites. Bell was granted patent 856,838 for Connecting Device for the Frames of Aeriel Vehicles and Other Structures on 11 June 1907. This patent shows an modular octahedral-tetrahedral system “adaptable to a great variety of structural uses.” The octet truss is in use in the International Space Station, as Fuller claimed it would be. Closer to home, lighting rigs in theaters often use an octet-truss structure.
Tensegrity is called Tensile-Integrity Structures in 3,063,521 (13 November 1962). Non-Symetrical Tensegrity is called Non-Symetrical Tension-Integrity Structures in 3,866,366 (18 February 1975). Buckminster Fuller invented the word tensegrity, but the structure described as a tensegrity was invented by Kenneth Snelson. Both of these patents cite Dymaxion World, and illustration 265 in Dymaxion World mentions Snelson. The sculpture on page 179 was made by students at the University of Oregon in 1959. The sculpture on pages 184-185 was made by students at North Carolina State College in 1950. The sculpture on page 190 is claimed to have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1959 but perhaps instead it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in that same year, along with a geodesic dome and octet trus sculpture. At no time has either of these patents been used in architecture, be it a home, a bridge, a garden shed, a dog house or any other sort of shelter. Tensegrities are fascinating sculptures but so far have no use in architecture.
The Submarisle (Undersea Island) is called an Undersea Island in patent 3,080,583 (12 March 1963). The world has yet to see giant cargo submarines in need of submarisle docks. But drug runners are using very small submarines to transport their goods in the early 21st Century. Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf Two housed ten researchers and had an underwater submarine dock in 1963.
The Aspension (Suspension Building) is called a Suspension Building in patent 3,139,957 (7 July 1964). This is another invention by Fuller that has never been utilized commercially, although aspension structures exist as models.
The Monohex (Geodesic Structures) is called Geodesic Structures in patent 3,197,927 (3 August 1965). The photograph on pages 216-217 show the 50′ Fly’s Eye dome built by John Warren. Additional photograph of this dome can be found on pages 210-211 of Buckyworks by J. Baldwin. It is unknown where the photographs on pages 222-223 were taken.
The Laminar Dome is called a Laminar Geodesic Dome in patent 3,203,144 (31 August 1965). The photograph on page 229 shows the same radome in illustration 415 of Dymaxion World, built by Western Electric.
The Star Tensegrity (Octahedral Truss) is called an Octahedral Building Truss in patent 3,354,591 (28 November 1967). The photograph on page 248 shows the Union Carbide Tank Car Company Dome in Baton Rouge, LA USA. This dome was constructed in 1958 and demolished in 2007.
The Rowing Needles (Watercraft) is called a Watercraft in patent 3,524,422 (18 August 1970). Inventions does not give the filing date, which was 28 March 1968. In Dymaxion World illustration 298 this is called a minor invention of 1947. In Grunch of Giants, Fuller claims the rowing needles were invented in 1938 and prototyped in 1954. Catamarans and outrigger canoes have existed since before recorded history.
The Floating Breakwater is patent 4,136,994 (4 February 1975) and the Floatable Breakwater is patent 3,863,455 (30 January 1979). Fuller claims that he produced Floatable Breakwaters but there are no photographs of them in Inventions. Inventions does not give the filing date for either of these patents, which were 19 September 1977 and 10 December 1973 respectively. Dozens of floating breakwater patents, some generating power like Fuller’s Floatable Breakwater, predate Fuller’s patents. Lancelot Kirkup was granted patent 226,663 for his breakwater “loaded so to float that its greatest diameter will be about at the water line” on 20 April 1880.
The Hanging Storage Shelf Unit is patent 4,377,114 (22 March 1983). Inventions does not give the filing date, which was 5 October 1981. Fuller claims the hanging storage shelf unit was built and used in a bookstore, perhaps the unit shown in the photograph on page 295. The book on the shelf in that photograph is The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, thus the photograph could have been taken no earlier than 1973. The hanging storage shelf unit is not unlike the 1944 criss-cross tensionally supported table found in illustration 300 in Dymaxion World.
Part two of this essay will feature patents found in Inventions that were shared. Some shared patents were invented by Fuller and assigned to others, some were not made by Fuller but appear in Inventions nonetheless, some were not made by Fuller but should have appeared in Inventions. Part three of this essay will feature inventions by Fuller that were not patented or which do not appear in Inventions, the most lost of all of the lost inventions of Buckminster Fuller