Buckminster Fuller was a renowned inventor and thinker of the 20th century. He is often called a visionary for his theories on the need for alternative energy such as solar and wind power, and for his best known designs. Fuller invented and realized the geodesic dome structure, and also created the standard soccer ball design used in professional leagues until 1996.
Born in Massachusetts in 1895, Buckminster Fuller came from a philosophically minded family; his great-aunt Margaret Fuller was a noted journalist and activist. Always a bit unusual, Buckminster attended Harvard but was thrown out twice and never received an official degree from the university. He served in a variety of jobs and fought in World War I as a naval radio operator. When his young daughter died tragically of polio and meningitis, Fuller experienced a suicidal period that led him to an epiphany that would guide the rest of his life; he wanted to see “what a single individual can contribute to changing the world.”
After coming out of his depression, Fuller began earnest work as a designer and architect, as well as a poet and philosopher. His first projects were the Dymaxion house, an inexpensive and mass produced structure that would rely on efficient design to preserve energy and maximize space. Despite interest in the models Buckminster Fuller built, they were never put into major production.
Buckminster also designed an efficient three-wheeled automobile called the Dymaxion car. The design specifications allowed it to carry up to 11 passengers, reach speeds of 120 miles (193 km) per hour, and get excellent gas mileage. Some have suggested that the car was never placed into production because automakers felt it would be superior to the traditional models and consequently ruin their business. Yet the design has proved inspirational for many cars, including the long-awaited Aptera Typ-1, a highly efficient three-wheeled car set to debut at the end of 2008.
The design that Buckminster Fuller is best known for was not actually his own invention. The geodesic dome was designed by a German engineer, but Fuller both named and further developed the concept, touting it as a functional and space-maximizing unit that can be built without internal structural support. Geodesic domes can now be found all over the world, serving as homes, arenas and even aircraft hangers.
Many experts consider Buckminster Fuller to be one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. In addition to his conceptual designs, he was a gifted lecturer and writer, and published dozens of works. He served as president of Mensa, and was awarded many honorary degrees. Some consider his most important contribution to be his daily diary, which documented his everyday life from 1915 until 1983 and is considered a tremendous work of historical perspective.
Buckminster Fuller died of a heart attack in 1987, 36 hours before his wife succumbed to cancer. Although his name never became a household word and many of his designs remained as prototypes or even drawings, his contributions to design and renewable energy concepts seem more and more visionary as the world-wide energy and resource crises impact the Earth in the 21st century. Some experts believe that as climate conditions worsen and fuel reserves become scarcer, more attention will be paid to Fuller’s efficient designs, and they will eventually help humans adapt to a more sustainable way of life.