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Guide to the R. Buckminster Fuller Papers M1090
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The papers of this 20th century polymath contain his personal archive the Dymaxion Chronofile, manuscripts, drawings and audio-visual materials relating to his career as an architect, mathematician, inventor and social critic.
Richard Buckminster Fuller was born July 12, 1895, in Milton, Mass. Fuller was descended from a long line of New England Nonconformists, the most famous being his great-aunt, the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. Fuller's father died when he was a child, and the young Bucky-as he was known throughout his life-grew up in genteel but straightened circumstances. Among his extended family, at Milton Academy, and then at Harvard University, he was a bright but marginal figure. He was suspended from Harvard after his freshman year, then expelled the next year; he never earned a degree. Instead, like his fellow New Englander Herman Melville, a yard-arm-or in Fuller's case, a rescue boat-would be his Harvard and Yale. During World War I, he received a commission in the U.S. Navy, and spent a year in officer candidate school at the Naval Academy. The blend of practical and theoretical knowledge he found at Annapolis, and an officer culture that valued technical skill and hard work, contrasted strongly with the Brahmin decadence he had encountered in Cambridge. Even decades later he still remarked on the difference.In 1917 Fuller married Anne Hewlett, daughter of James Monroe Hewlett, a well-known architect and muralist. The marriage was one of the defining features of Fuller's life: Anne proved astonishingly flexible during Bucky's difficult years in the 1920s and 1930s, and was equally resourceful as a manager of his busy affairs after World War II. Too little attention has been given to Anne, or to her role in sustaining Fuller's professional life and work. Their marriage ended after sixty-six years, when they died just weeks short of Fuller's eighty-eighth birthday in July 1983.After World War I Fuller and his father-in-law formed a construction company to build houses from a prefabricated fiber block invented by Hewlett. They were forced out of their company in 1927 after financial difficulties; this failure, and the death of his young daughter Alexandra, nearly pushed Fuller to suicide. Instead, he resolved to devote himself, essentially, to changing the world: to developing a "design science" that would allow mankind to use its resources more efficiently. The first product of this program was the Dymaxion House, a factory-produced, hexagonal house exploiting materials and manufacturing principles from the aircraft industry. He next designed the Dymaxion car, a streamlined, three-wheeled vehicle that looked more like a wingless DC-3 than any contemporary car; three prototypes were built, but investors deserted the project after an accident killed a test driver. While neither project was a commercial success, they brought Fuller to public attention, and established his reputation as an unconventional, stimulating thinker willing to challenge conventional professional standards and routines. He continued working on prefabricated housing and automobile designs in the 1940s: immediately before and after World War II, Fuller developed prototype houses to be manufactured from parts designed for grain silos (in the case of the Dymaxion Dwelling Unit) and aircraft materials (in the case of the Wichita House), and designed an automobile for industrialist Henry Kaiser.In this same period, Fuller began researching trends in global industrialization and energy use. His first studies, conducted for Fortune magazine, were published in 1938; they also contributed to his invention of the Dymaxion World Map, for which he received a patent in 1942. This work later became the foundation for the World Game, which Fuller developed in the 1960s. During World War II, Fuller served in the Bureau of Economic Warfare, an agency devoted to industrial espionage and acquisition of critical industrial and military resources (both for Allied use, and to keep them from falling into Axis hands). Exactly what Fuller did for the Bureau is a bit of a mystery: biographers describe him as having been head of the mechanical engineering division, but no such group appears on the BEW's organization chart.Fuller turned fifty a few weeks before V-J Day. However, his career would not wind down after the war: the level of his activity would increase exponentially in the early years of the Cold War, and until his death Fuller would spend several months per year on the road, as a visiting professor, keynote speaker, and participant in international conferences. The main reason for his fame after World War II was his invention of the geodesic dome. Geodesic domes are constructed by assembling struts of various mathematically-defined lengths into triangles; the resulting structures are exceptionally lightweight, strong, and requires no interior supports. Fuller began experimenting with spherical structures in the late 1940s. The geodesic dome first came to prominence in the early 1950s, when they were used as radar shelters in the Distant Early Warning line, and were the subject of experiments by the Marine Corps. From 1956, domes were also used as exhibit pavilions in international trade fairs: in this competitive environment, brightly-lit domes filled with consumer goods became a symbol of American ingenuity and the strength of Cold War capitalism from Kabul (in 1956) to behind the Berlin Wall (Poznan 1957, Moscow 1959) to Montreal in 1967.The geodesic dome solidified Fuller's reputation as a visionary yet practical thinker, and provided the focus for his intellectual and entrepreneurial activities. It gained Fuller invitations to leading architecture schools, and through much of the 1950s he traveled a circuit between MIT, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, North Carolina State, and other schools. Much of his research and development work was conducted during these appointments, as they provided him with resources-skilled and enthusiastic students, building materials, connections with the profession and industry-otherwise unavailable to independent inventors. Fuller also founded two companies, Synergetics and Geodesics, to develop domes for government and commercial use in the mid-1950s; a few years later, he formed an architecture partnership with Shoji Sadao (they designed the 1967 Montreal Expo dome). He also began a long collaboration with patent attorney Donald Robertson, who provided Fuller's enterprises with much-needed legal and financial advising.In the 1960s, domes were embraced by the counterculture, and thousand were built, especially in rural communes. For these dome-builders, domes were symbols of an ecologically friendly, pacifist, and anti-corporate lifestyle (that is, the rejection of precisely those values the dome embodied in the 1950s). Fuller likewise became an idol of the counterculture: the Whole Earth Catalog, its editors declared, was inspired by him. While he continued to work on a few mammoth projects-a proposal to construct a giant dome in East Saint Louis, a design for giant floating tetrahedron cities-Fuller's principal activities after 1967 shifted away from invention and development. (But not entirely: his last two patents were for a novel suspended bookcase design, and a new form of rowing scull.) Instead, he devoted increasing amounts of time to the World Game, a simulation demonstrating how the world's resources could be distributed to create global plenty, and to the exposition of his philosophical and mathematical ideas. This latter project yielded two major books, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (1975), and Critical Path (1981).Fuller's life spans a remarkable range of inventive activities: he was, at different times, an inventor, engineer, author, teacher, mathematician, futurist, speaker, and cartographer. Probably no other 20th-century figure was Charles Eliot Professor of Poetry at Harvard University (1962), recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize (1970). By any standard his was a remarkable life; and it was documented to a remarkable standard. Fuller began collecting his personal papers, and newspaper and magazine clippings about his work, in the 1920s; his "Chronofile," as he called it, grew to include material about his inventive activities, the business and legal structures that supported his work, correspondence with countless admirers, and family letters. (Letters from Anne were carefully re-filed in their original envelopes.) His archive expanded after World War II to include drawings, blueprints, photographs, slides, models, and eventually audio and video recordings of his talks. With 1,300 linear feet of paper, 2,000 hours of audio and video (imagine yourself recorded at work, 40 hours a week, for a full year; that's 2,000 hours), and thousands of other physical and visual artifacts, Fuller's life is perhaps the most thoroughly documented of any private citizen. Tying all these pieces together are two other sets of material: the Chronofile Index, which represents Fuller's organization of the collection; and his agenda, which details his travels, professional activities, speaking engagements, meetings-even his dinner guests and names of his hosts while traveling-from the 1930s to his death.Together, these sources make it possible to reconstruct Fuller's activities, communication, and interests on a day-by-day basis, and to uncover the interconnections between Fuller's public, private and professional lives and the evolution of his thought. This variety of this collection is not to be measured simply in terms of its material diversity: different portions of it cover different parts of his life and work. The Chronofile is mainly a record of Fuller's public and entrepreneurial life; the audio tapes record Fuller's teaching, early drafts of manuscripts, and relationship with his public; the film collection includes raw footage of military tests of the geodesic dome; the blueprints and drawings cover Fuller's architectural and cartographic activities. Further, Fuller's circle of friends and acquaintances was remarkably rich: he drew from Greenwich Village bohemians in the 1920s, Black Mountain College colleagues in the late 1940s, Cold Warriors in the 1950s, countercultural thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s. His correspondents included Albert Einstein, Romany Marie, Isamu Noguchi, Martha Graham, Clare Booth Luce, Thornton Wilder, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, the Black Mountain poets and artists, and countless others from all walks of life. The value of the Papers thus extends well beyond the already considerable importance of revealing the context and content of Fuller's own achievements; beyond that, it is a repository of information about the cultural, intellectual, environmental, and material history of the United States throughout nearly the whole of the 20th century. Finally, it is worth nothing that this collection was intended by Fuller to be used as a research tool: he saw his life as a grand experiment, the results of which had to be recorded. Fuller meant for the Chronofile to be used to understand his life and age.
1200.0 Linear feet
Property rights reside with the repository. Literary rights reside with the creators of the documents or their heirs. To obtain permission to publish or reproduce, please contact the Public Services Librarian of the Dept. of Special Collections.
Collection is open for research; materials must be requested at least 24 hours in advance of intended use.