The Engineer as Work of Art

In August 1966, when Life magazine reported on the burgeoning art and technology scene, it highlighted the role of Johan Wilhelm “Billy” Klüver. According to the article, the 38-year-old engineer was “the Edison-Tesla-Steinmetz-Marconi-Leonardo da Vinci of the American avant-garde.” Besides working as a researcher at Bell Labs, Klüver had already collaborated with major artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, helping them incorporate electrical technologies into art pieces. His skill, explained Grace Glueck, an art writer for the New York Times a year earlier, “goes into friends’ creations.

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Klüver, as profiled in Life, 1966

Klüver’s contributions transcended the technical, however. As Life noted, the engineer was also engaged in developing a “scientific brain trust” in which engineers would assist artists in achieving their aesthetic vision. Where the artist has “an immediate, intuitive way of working” the engineer “proceeds logically and slowly toward an end.” Although “no visionary about life,” the engineer could, Klüver claimed, stimulate the artist with “new ways of looking at technology.”

The first product from this mélange, Life said, would be a Festival for Art and Technology scheduled for the fall of 1966. Held at the 69th Regiment Armory – site of the famous 1913 exhibition of modern art – in mid-October 1966, this plan was realized as 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering.

Unfolding, as it name suggests, over nine nights, the event stands out now as the coming out party of the art and technology movement in the United States. It also marked Klüver as the movement’s most visible and vocal spokesperson.

Acting less as engineer or artist, Klüver was an orchestrator, a facilitator who wanted to bring artists and engineers together as an experiment to see what happened. The focus was not on the product – “We’re not interested in art,” Klüver told one writer in 1968 – but rather on the process that generated it. If we conflate process with a transitional act of becoming, changing, and seeing through experiment, than we can start to Klüver’s own career as a product of this – the “engineer as a work of art,” as an Art in America interview described him. Because of his pivotal role in coordinating 9 Evenings, I want to spend some time writing about the early experiences and influences that helped shape Klüver views toward art, technology, and the places where they overlapped.

Klüver’s earliest contacts with the art world happened far away from the downtown New York art scene. Born in 1927 in Monaco, Klüver’s parents soon relocated back to their native Scandinavia and he grew up in Sweden where his father operated a tourist resort near the Norwegian border.

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Portrait of the engineer as a young skier. Image courtesy of Julie Martin.

After his parents divorced, Klüver moved with his mother to Stockholm where film became his consuming interest. Taking advantages of Stockholm’s vibrant film culture, the young Klüver joined the city’s University Film Society, a membership he maintained when he started his undergraduate coursework in 1946 at the Royal Institute of Technology. (Klüver’s  autobiographical notes devote much more time discussing the film scene in Sweden and the movies he saw than his own interest in science and technology.)

While in Stockholm, Klüver met Pontus Hultén. This proved an important connection as Hultén, a few years older than Klüver, later became the director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and, in the 1970s, the Centre Georges Pompidou. Hultén was a key contact for Klüver in the modern art world and, once he was working at Bell Labs, Klüver acted as a liaison for his fellow Swede to the American art scene.

At university in Stockholm, Klüver’s electronics professor was Hannes Alfvén. Originally trained as a power engineer, Alfvén’s specialty was the study of plasma physics. Being in Sweden, one can imagine the draw that the Northern Lights had a research topic and, from the 1930s onward, he studied the aurorae borealis as a case study in the relationship between plasma movement in the presence of electrical and magnetic fields. This research brought Alfvén a share of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics. As Klüver recalled, Alfvén was a great role model, teaching him that “a physicist did not have to be limited in his interests or pursuits.” Writing with a pseudonym – Olaf Johannesson – Alfvén also wrote science fiction.

Convinced that film could be an effective teaching tool, Klüver produced an animated short film that helped students visualize Alfvén’s laboratory research. Years later, when he came to the United States, Klüver brought copies of The Motion of Electrons in Electric and Magnetic Fields with him in the hope – unrealized – that Encyclopedia Britannica might be interested in it and others like it as a tool for teaching science.

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1954 letter regarding Klüver’s science education film.

In 1951, Klüver graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering. Before coming to the United States to continue his education, he worked at a Paris lab – a branch of Thomson CSF – which had a contract to build an underwater television camera for Jacques Cousteau. Cue Wes Anderson…In Marseilles, Klüver introduced himself to Cousteau as a “willing worker.” As he recalled, the French diver and science popularizer felt Klüver’s arms before inviting him to join the crew of Calypso. He spent that summer helping the crew recover materials from ancient Greek shipwreck off the French Riviera coast.

A year later, Klüver was enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering Department. The three years it took him to finish his degree was a process Klüver referred to several times as boring and intellectually stifling.

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Portrait of the engineer as graduate, 1957. Image courtesy of Julie Martin.

Driven by Cold War defense needs, enrollment in programs like Klüver rose dramatically and the focus was much less on the underlying meaning of what, say, quantum mechanics meant. Instead, students were taught to “shut up and calculate.” For Klüver, who had a longstanding interest in philosophy – in Paris he audited courses by Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne – this was frustrating; Klüver later recalled how a physics professors expressing disapproval at his extramural interests. Despite this, Klüver became friends with Dick Foster who helped organize film showing at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Like Klüver, Foster had another life outside art and film – he worked at the Stanford Research Institute as a national security analyst. Together, the two of them traveled to Big Sur where they hung out with Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Allen Ginsberg.

Klüver graduated in 1957 with his Ph.D. in electrical engineering – his specialty was microwave and, later, laser physics, topics made hot by Cold War defense needs. When he finished his degree, Klüver  – like many other physicists and engineers in his cohort – had several jobs open to him. RCA, Raytheon, and Stanford Research Institute all courted him with generous offers but Klüver opted to take a job at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ – arguably the world’s best corporate research lab at the time – as a member of the Technical Staff in Communications Research Department.

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Klüver doing research. Image courtesy of Julie Martin.

At Bell Lab’s, Klüver’s boss was John R. Pierce. It was a good fit. In addition to his legendary acumen as an electrical engineer and research manager – he helped pioneer early satellite communications, among other things – Pierce also wrote sci-fi and had a longstanding interest in both modern art and experimental electronic music. Pierce was generous in tolerating, even indirectly enabling, Klüver’s later art and technology initiatives, a managerial decision made easy by the flush economic circumstances that Bell Labs was in during the 1960s.

Soon after he started working at Bell Labs, Klüver encountered C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lectures when they were published in 1959 in two installments in the magazine Encounter. Klüver later recalled that he “reacted very strongly against it. I didn’t feel he had the right to divide society into two separate cultures…But perhaps it was his call for action to bridge the gap that I subconsciously agreed with.”

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At about the read Snow’s diagnosis, Klüver and his friend Pontus Hultén began making trips around the New York City area – Klüver had a car – to visit artists. In addition to lofts and studios in New York, they ventured forth to Connecticut where they met the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo and kinetic artist Alexander Calder. By this time, he had also met Swedish artist Jean Tinguely and soon helped him build his infamous “Homage to New York.” On St. Patrick’s Day in 1960, Klüver was in the courtyard at the Museum of Modern Art “Homage” – with its bicycle wheels, piano, a child’s cart, bottles, bathtub, and a “money thrower” contributed by Robert Rauschenberg – stuttered, wheezed, smoked, and staggered its way to self-destruction.

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Homage to New York on cover of electrical engineering magazine, 1969

Klüver’s view of auto-destructing artwork differed from critics who saw it as an nihilistic expression of about technology. “In the same way as a scientific experiment can never fail, this experiment in art could never fail,” he wrote in 1960. Judging Homage on the basis of whether it worked perfectly – and it certainly didn’t – would be a mistake. Inspired by the possibilities of engineering, the artist had turned engineers for help. “As an engineer, working with him,” Klüver concluded, “I was part of the machine.”

By this point, Klüver literally had one foot in each of Snow’s Two Cultures. Part of his time was spent doing physics at Bell Labs in northern New Jersey. The rest of it was spent, a world apart, in Manhattan where he worked with Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns while attending avant-garde theatre and dance performances and taking part in the burgeoning “Happenings” scene.

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Klüver, c. 1962. Image courtesy of Julie Martin.

Back at Bell Labs, Klüver continued publishing his research in internal Bell papers as well as mainstream engineering journals. His c.v. lists also 10 patents (several are described here) with his name on them from the 1960s. He was also beginning to write short essays about art, technology, and society. It’s through the preservation efforts of Klüver’s widow, Julie Martin, that these are available. They provide a fascinating window into the thoughts of an engineer trying to reconcile his interests and expertise with ideas, trends, and concerns from the humanities and the art world.

For example, in 1960, Klüver published a short essay in a short-lived art and literary review called The Hasty Papers that the painter Alfred Leslie published. Called “Fragment on Man and the System,” Klüver described it as a collection of the “jumbled thoughts, my youth, and my many influences.”

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Heavily edited draft of Klüver’s essay.

It later appeared on the same page as a poem by William Carlos Williams and bundled together with contributions from Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Frank O’Hara. Klüver noted that the engineer – the “system builder” – had a new capacity to understand and analyze complex general systems. Yet, “he appears to be unable to make contact with reality.” As a result, these systems – critiques of technology in the 1960s often honed in on The System – were, as a result, “drifting without guidance from meaningful decisions.” There was a gap, Klüver said, between the individual and the system builder which must be closed so that the former becomes an active element of the system.

Two features of Klüver’s essay stand out. First, he wrote it in the absence of any established canon of what today we call Science and Technology Studies. The 1960s saw all sorts of increasingly sophisticated critiques about technology – from Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul to the environmental movement and student left. The Society for the History of Technology had only just formed in 1958; the Society for the Social Studies of Science didn’t come along until 1975. So, when Klüver wrote his piece – he started drafting it while he was still at Berkeley, he didn’t have access to these critiques which followed. Therefore, I see his essay – general and often vague as it is – as a sort of proto-STS essay.

Second, as he later described it, this short essay “contained the seeds” for what became Experiments in Art and Technology, the non-profit he co-founded (with Rauschenberg, artist Robert Whitman, and Bell engineer Fred Waldhauer) in 1966 in the midst of organizing 9 Evenings. Klüver was trying to articulate that technology is not deterministic and that people – “the individual” (artist) – can work with the “system builder” (the engineer) to change it. In the go-go techno-utopian year of 1960, this sort of thinking from an engineer – especially one such as Klüver whose employment was so deeply tied to the Cold War System – was unusually forward-thinking.

Following his experiences with Tingueley and Homage, Klüver began to give greater thought to how he might get his Bell Labs colleagues to leap across Snow’s Two Cultures and interface with artists. In September 1962, for example, he circulated a memo around the lab suggesting that Bell Labs start an “Arts and Science Club.” Its purpose would be to “establish direct contact between working artists and Bell Laboratory employees” and acquaint the latter with “the formidable mass of modern art” that was being made just thirty miles away.

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Klüver’s 1962 memo; courtesy of Julie Martin.

Drawing on C.P. Snow, Klüver asked how one could find a better representation – and opportunity – “than in Bell Labs and in the artist’s world in New York.” Artists, he said, were very interested in science and engineering.” And yet, the paradox is that “many technical problems and dreams of the artists” needed input from engineers and scientists. Klüver proposed to broker an arranged marriage between them. “It would not be surprising,” he wrote, “if the scientist could inspire the artist by presenting new problems to him.”

Nothing, so far as the historical record is concerns, appears to have come from Klüver’s memo. 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering was still four years away. But the seeds for what became that event – the intellectual and organizational momentum needed to realize it – was already taking shape and form in Klüver’s mind. “Technology needs an examiner, a stimulator, a teaser, a stripper. The artist’s use of technology gives us this goal,” he wrote in a Swedish magazine in 1966, “What is left for the engineer is to see to it that the artist is not too late.”

Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts about 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a multi-media event that helped launch the 1960s-era art and technology movement and now offers a touchstone for New Media Art and analysis. The first installment is here

50 Years of Art & Engineering

50 years ago, accomplished professionals from two supposedly very different communities – high-tech research and avant-garde art – came together and fused at the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York City. More than three dozen engineers from nearby Bell Laboratories, arguably the world’s preeminent corporate research laboratory, joined with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Lucinda Childs to create ten distinct multi-media pieces for 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering. In October 1966, thousands of art enthusiasts, critics, and curiosity seekers trekked to midtown Manhattan to see and, in some cases, participate in performances that blended dance, music, and the visual arts with sophisticated electrical and communications engineering.

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Poster advertising 9 Evenings.

This fall marks the half-century mark of 9 Evenings. Because I’m writing a new book (called Art ReWired) about the intersection of engineers and artists, I thought a series of short blog posts about the seminal event would be both timely and brain-stimulating.

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Artists & engineers who created 9 Evenings, October 1966, in front of the 69th Regiment Armory in New York.

The backstory to 9 Evenings is complex but the central figure in it is Wilhelm “Billy” Klüver (1927-2004). Long interested in experimental film and modern art, in the early 1960s the Swedish-born and Berkeley-trained engineer worked at Bell Labs. He also spent evenings and weekends assisting with artists like Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and helping organize major art shows. The symbolism of having 9 Evenings at the Armory was obvious. In 1913, it had hosted a famous and controversial exhibition which helped to publicly present modern art to American viewers.

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Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver with neon “R” he designed for Jasper Johns’ Field Painting .

In 1966, as 9 Evenings was coming together, Klüver also helped establish the New York-based group Experiments in Art and Technology. E.A.T., as it was better known, brought artists and engineers together, generating what were sociological, as well as artistic and technological experiments. From one-on-one collaborations to large-scale ambitions that mirrored Cold War-era Big Science projects, E.AT. was highly visible, sometimes successful, and always controversial.

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Recruiting engineers for E.A.T., 1967

9 Evenings stands out as the most visible opening salvo in what became the “art and technology” movement of the long 1960s. Bracketed by the launch of Sputnik on one end and the Watergate scandal at the other, the movement unfolded in the U.S. and Europe and was marked by scores of collaborations between artists and engineers. Sometimes these collaborations were between curious individuals; in other cases, they involved scores of people and multi-millions dollar budgets. For artists, it was partly a desire to work with new technology and a sense of crisis about the relevance of object-oriented art. For engineers, working with artists was an opportunity to bridge C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” divide and show technology and engineering as a positive force in society.

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Published version of Snow’s 1959 Rede Lectures.

Today, 9 Evenings appears as a model for how art and technology could combine into a new creative force. It’s nearly impossible to visit a display of contemporary art without seeing at least one piece deploying some digital or video technology. Meanwhile, artists like Eduardo Kac have blended bioengineering and art in ways that dissolve any boundaries between them.

The roots of this hybridization, of course, can be traced to many sources but a primary one is 9 Evenings. Science historian Arthur I. Miller opened his recent intriguing (but ultimately flawed) book Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Re-Defining Contemporary Art with a vignette drawn from 9 Evenings. More recently, Michelle Kuo, editor of Artforum, suggested that lessons from 9 Evenings seeped into and informed Silicon Valley’s culture of technological disruption. In addition to providing ample material for several doctoral dissertations, Seattle will see the commemoration of the “artistic traditions” 9 Evenings introduced and celebrate the power of collaboration and creativity via a multi-day art, technology, and science festival called 9E2.

The enthusiasm and interest shown by digital and New Media Art scholars – a diverse and multi-disciplinary community to be sure – in 9 Evenings as a critical origin point for their topic of study is ironic given its silent treatment in art history. If one picks up any recent survey of modern art, the art and technology movement, let alone 9 Evenings, isn’t likely to appear. One would be hard pressed to even find “technology” in the index of such books.

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9 Evenings in preparation – artists Rauschenberg and Lucinda Childs (2nd and 3rd from left) Bell Labs engineers Herb Schneider, L.J. Robertson, Per Biorn, and Klüver.

This presents a puzzle. Many of the artists – Rauschenberg, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg as well as a host of lesser-known figures – who populate the art history canon were dabblers if not eager participants in the larger art and technology movement. Their experimentation with technology and collaboration with engineers is camouflaged in favor of their more familiar accomplishments. We might see discussion of Rauschenberg’s “combines”, for instance, but his years-long collaborations with Klüver or his participation in E.A.T. are absent.

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Klüver and Rauschenberg working on the environmental sound sculpture called Oracle, c. 1965.

Perhaps this isn’t so shocking when one considers that art, broadly speaking, is itself largely absent from histories of modern science and technology. Piling on more irony – both art history and the histories of science and technology are themselves small islets comprising the larger archipelago of mainstream history. They have their own departments, journals, professional societies, meetings and so on. One is unlikely to see much art or science or technology appear in mainstream journals like American Historical Review.

While finding a better seat at History’s Big Table for art or technology might is a long-term and probably unrealistic project, it’s not unreasonable to look for ways in which of Clio’s semi-orphans can better engage with one another. People who look at the histories of art and science/technology share some common interests. A few that jump to mind include: how experiments are created and executed; patronage and the situation of art (or engineering) within a large political economy; the pursuit and effects of publicity and publishing; and questions about creativity and moral responsibility. Moreover, we can interpret productions like 9 Evenings as an art world version of 1960s-era Big Science. Whether it was Big Science or Big Art c. 1966, Cold War engineers were central actors in both.

Despite its overuse, C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” diagnosis – despite decades of hand-wringing and curriculum re-jiggering by academic administrators – has never disappeared or been dispatched. Its echoes appear in today’s calls to introduce an “A for Art” into STEM education (Hey! You get STEAM!)


One of the many STEM->STEAM logos out there. This one is from Ohio University.

In the next few blog posts, I’m going to look more closely at 9 Evenings. Fascinating in its own right as the earliest, biggest, and brightest art & tech collaboration from the long 1960s, a half-century later it offers a case study for how art and technology (and their histories) might talk to one another.

Next Time: Billy Klüver – the Engineer as Artwork

Buckminster Fuller’s Geometric Futures

Note: This blog post is adapted from a recent essay – a review of Jonathon Keats’s new book You Belong to the Universe – I wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Enjoy…

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Fuller, 1964.

There are two possible views of Buckminster Fuller.  Consider: “Bucky” to friends and family – Fuller was a true American visionary, a solitary innovator who forged ahead as corporate research and development displaced the lone inventor. A kindly and bespectacled blend of Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, Fuller was so far ahead of his time that the future, let alone the present, has caught up to him. From his experimental Dymaxion cars to the geodesic domes that made him an international figure and unlikely counterculture guru, Fuller promoted environmentally conscious designs with the potential to benefit everyone on Spaceship Earth.

Or…a consummate bullshit artist, Bucky Fuller’s career was a failure, if not an outright fraud. With few ideas achieving any commercial success, Fuller was a hand-waving proponent of outlandish notions. An aggressive manager of his profile and patents, the authoritarian technocrat sought not students but compliant disciples who would spread Fuller’s muddled messages. Even the geodesic dome, Fuller’s greatest “success,” rested on a concept borrowed, if not stolen, from an aspiring sculptor and student. Even Spaceship Earth was a concept Fuller claimed as his own.

The reality is a smeared superposition these two representations, a blend of the visionary’s own mythologizing and the historical record. Peeling away the mythic layers that Fuller and his acolytes applied to his life like so many layers of fertilizer is no easy task. It’s not for a lack of historical sources. Fuller consciously, even obsessively, documented his existence. His “Chronofile” is perhaps the most comprehensive record of any individual’s life. Now owned by Stanford University, it challenges scholars with 1200 linear feet of boxes containing manuscripts, models, design drawings, and audio-visual recordings (as well as overdue library notices and grocery lists). Fuller’s was not a life unrecorded.

Peaking through that smokescreen of self-mythologizing is evidence that even when it came to basic, even pivotal, moments in Fuller’s life, the visionary designer was anything but a reliable narrator. Yet this interpretative flexibility with historical facts and professional accomplishments proved central to Fuller’s undeniable success.

Consider the accomplishment Fuller is most famed for – the geodesic dome. Geodesics – the domes themselves and their underlying geometry – made Buckminster Fuller into an international celebrity. When Time featured him on its cover in 1964, the now-familiar architecture dominated the picture as it did fifty years later when a U.S. postage stamp (pictured above) honored Fuller.

Fuller’s most prominent invention originated not in some military laboratory but in the avant-garde atmosphere of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in 1948 where he was visiting as an architecture professor. The students tried, with Fuller’s supervision, to build a structure using Venetian blind slats as trusses held in place via tension.

It collapsed.

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Early design iteration for what became “Fuller’s” idea…

One of the students affected by Fuller’s Dymaxion ideas, however, was a young art student named Kenneth Snelson. Over the winter of 1948-49, he built a series of models in which the parts were held in place by taut wires, their balance of compression and tension providing structural stability. After returning to Black Mountain College, Snelson showed Fuller his model. By the end of the summer of 1949, the school’s art students, guided by Fuller, successfully built a geodesic dome using aluminum tubes.

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A year and another design iteration later…success.

Its basic principle is evident via its structure. Geodesic domes feature a superstructure of complex polyhedra based on interconnected triangles. Their advantage comes from their strength-to-weight ratio and relative ease of transport and assembly.

Fuller began to refer to the engineering principle Snelson had used as “tensegrity” – a clever portmanteau of “tension” and “integrity” – that he later patented just as he did with the geodesic dome. Snelson’s name was in neither patent application. The stage was set for a priority dispute between Snelson and Fuller that lasted decades. (Snelson’s version of the story is presented here…)

Fuller’s intellectual property claims notwithstanding, the artist went on to have a successful career as sculptor. Snelson’s “Needle Tower, a 60-foot tall “tensegrity” piece sits in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.

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In historical research, sorting out “who discovered it first” claims is a tricky and often unenlightening business. The past is littered with examples of simultaneous invention. In this case, the truth likely lies between Fuller’s opportunism and Snelson’s protestations. Developing and promoting the geodesic dome – inventing something isn’t the same as nurturing its diffusion – certainly required some synergy between teacher and student.

Promoting the geodesic dome’s potential was something Fuller, the consummate booster-cum-huckster, excelled at. Starting in 1949, Fuller the technocrat pushed geodesic domes as a key tool for American success on the Cold War battlefield both on the frontlines and at home. That same year, he oversaw a demonstration dome’s construction at the Pentagon and worked with MIT students to design another one that could shelter Air Force planes and their crews. The Marine Corps eventually had 300 of them built, envisioning their speedy deployment into combat hot zones.

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Fuller’s design was appreciated by the military for its strength and portability.

Fuller originally set up companies to make his domes but, starting in 1966, he licensed, for a 5% royalty, scores of other companies to make them. As they migrated from military bases to trade fairs, geodesic domes became not just a product of American capitalism but a symbol of it as well. At the 1967 World’s Fair, Fuller’s dome was the featured design for the U.S. pavilion.

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Montreal, Canada — Fuller in front of the geodesic dome which acts as the US pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The dome’s final, wonderfully ironic, transmutation occurred at the hands of America’s counterculture. At places like Drop City, a Colorado hippie commune started in 1965, geodesic domes popped up like so many mushrooms.

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The domes of Drop City, Colorado.

And, like so many aspects of that groovy era, geodesic domes – promoted by venues such as The Whole Earth Catalog – were marketed and sold. For example, Californian Lloyd Kahn converted to Fuller-ism after hearing him speak at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. “Enthralled by Fuller’s idea that waste could be eliminated by design,” Kahn produced books extolling domes as homes before renouncing them as a universal panacea for the world’s housing shortages and environmental problems.

Over three decade’s Fuller’s architectural icon had traveled from art project to Cold War instrument of power to countercultural icon to a fading symbol of utopian aspirations. What a long strange trip it had been.