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.

From Laser Art to Laserium

The folks at Science Friday included me today in a story about the ways in which the laser migrated from scientists’ labs to art galleries and planetariums. If you liked the show, here’s more of the story…

This advertisement, published just a few years after the first optical lasers were demonstrated, asked the question: “Where does the laser go from here?”

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One of the places it went was the artist’s studio and the art gallery. For example, In Washington, DC, artist Rockne Krebs started experimenting in 1967 with lasers and produced several innovative installations.

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Krebs in his 1968 piece Sculpture Minus Object. (© Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Another part of this story was the career of physicist Elsa Garmire. Trained at Harvard and then MIT in the 1960s, Garmire was a pioneer in laser research.

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Garmire in her lab, c. 1970.

In the late 1960s, while doing a postdoc at Caltech, Garmire began to experiment with using lasers to make art. Initially, she created “lasergrams” – photographs made by shining laser beams through various diffraction media. Here’s one example from 1969.

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One of Garmire’s “Lasergrams”

Garmire also explored a variation on photographing manipulated laser images via live shows using a HeNe laser and rotating diffraction wheels and then filming the changing shapes and colors. This sowed the seeds for what eventually became Laserium.

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Filming a laser show in Garmire’s lab, likely 1970 or 1971.

Before she returned to a very successful full-time career in scientific research, Garmire’s experimental live laser shows caught the attention of Ivan Dryer, a Los Angeles-based film maker.

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Ivan Dryer, c. 1975.

Dryer soon realized that filming Garmire’s laser images was aesthetically inferior to seeing the intensity and purity of their colors in person. In the fall of 1970, he arranged for a live and – to his eyes – captivating demonstration of Garmire’s system, accompanied by classical music, for staff at the Griffith Observatory. The observatory management, however, was less enchanted with what they saw as entertainment, not education. Disappointed but still motivated, Dryer and Garmire co-founded a company in February 1971 called Laser Images Inc.. Riffing on the popularity of planetarium shows, they called their product “Laserium.”

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The idea eventually took off. Laserium finally debuted at Griffith Observatory in November 1973, running on four consecutive Mondays, three times a day.  Advertisements said “Be Prepared.” Despite later stereotypes of Laserium, the first shows had no music by Pink Floyd. The run was a success and shows at Griffith continued for 28 years.

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By 1977, Dryer’s growing team of live laser performers were putting on shows in more than 15 cities in the U.S. and abroad and Laserium was a registered trademark. Laserium was based around a standard system, using a low power krypton laser split by a prism into four colored beams.

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1973 test of krypton laser system in Garmire’s Caltech lab.

The details of the system are preserved in the patent application Dryer and two colleagues filed in July 1975 for a “laser light image generator” that can create a “plurality of light images in different colors from a single laser light.”

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Laserium had a broad appeal – stoners, geeks, and planetarium junkies all turned out to see shows. Its popularity was no doubt enhanced by the relative novelty of lasers for the general public in the mid-1970s. The 1977 film Star Wars added to people’s interest in all things laser-y.

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Laserium, in Marvel’s The Amazing Spider Man, 1977

Just as planetarium shows have helped popularize astronomy, Laserium can be seen as a public display of laser technology, its roots traceable back to 19th century displays of electricity and electrical effects by people like Michael Faraday and Nikola Tesla.

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Nikola Tesla giving an electrical demonstration; from Scientific American, 1892.

Laserium was not without its aesthetic admirers. One art writer, for example, referred to experiments with laser projection as the “seeds of what will become the high, universally acclaimed visual art of the future.” Given Laserium’s penchant for attracting attendees whose appreciation of choreographed laser light was chemically enhanced, “high” visual art takes on another meaning as well.

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After peaking in the late 1970s when some 70 people worked for the company, Laserium slowly faded in popularity. Often lampooned as the preferred entertainment of pot heads and LSD trippers, we can also see Laserium as the somewhat disreputable cousin of the venerable planetarium show. Nonetheless, by 2002, more than 20 million people around the world had seen a Laserium show – its run at Griffith lasted some 28 years – and its idiosyncratic blend of music and spectacle had become part of popular culture.

Laserium’s story tells us that we can no longer think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as an “anti-science” or “anti-technology” period. A more nuanced reading shows that engineers, artists, and the general public in general sought and found alternative forms of science and technology. Laserium was a colorful off-shoot of this search for a different, groovier, science.

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Project Moneyshot?

Yesterday – the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight – Russian billionaire Yuri Milner made international headlines with his announcement of an initial $100 million investment called the Breakthrough Starshot.

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Milner joined by host of scientific celebrities including Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and Ann Druyan

Starshot’s proposed plan would unfold like this: sometime, decades hence, a rocket ship would deliver a thousand or more craft, each about the size of deck of cards, into space. This swarm of spacecraft would unfurl tiny solar sails. Then, a giant laser array on Earth would send beams of intense coherent light, accelerating the fleet up to about 20% the speed of light.

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Assuming accurate navigation, in about 20 years, the space swarm would arrive at Alpha Centauri, some 4.37 light years from us. The craft would hurtle past the star system, beaming information and pictures back to Earth. Estimated total cost? Somewhere between $5-10 billion.

Russian billionaire? Check. Giant laser? Check. Someone get Ian Fleming’s estate on the phone…

Milner fits perfectly into the category of historical actors I have called visioneers: he possesses an expansive view of how his technological projects could alter the future; he has a scientific background; and he has the means and skill to promote and publicize his ideas, taking them to a wide audience. And – unlike the people I wrote about in my book – Milner has the added benefit of gazillions of dollars to fuel his dream.

When I read about Breakthrough Starshot in The New York Times this morning, more than anything I was drawn to the comments (yes, I read them). Other than those people who wrote to say the whole idea was stupid – a not terribly helpful critique – many remarks fell into two main categories.

Group One said (paraphrasing): “This is an awesome idea. It will inspire people to study science. Humanity needs big ideas. We’re a curious species. We should, nay, we need to do this. Ad astra!!”

Group Two wasn’t so boosterish: “We have real problems here and now. This money could be better spent right here in our communities. Moreover, isn’t this just part of the larger plan of the rich and powerful seeking ways off this rock when everything heads south? Tax these people now!”

More than anything, people’s reactions reminded me of public debates in the mid-1970s about the future possibilities of building large-scale settlements that would float freely out in space. Associated most closely with the visioneering ideas of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, the idea of space colonies provoked a very similar response four decades ago.

A good sense of this polarization can be found in the pages of a book that appeared in 1977. Edited by Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Space Colonies presented a myriad array of opinions and responses from experts, pundits, and ordinary citizens about O’Neill’s proposed off-world habitats.

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Cover of Brand’s 1977 book

About four out of five correspondents who wrote to Brand viewed the idea of space colonies favorably. Some imagined space settlements as an extension of the groovy “back to land” lifestyle that was popular in the 1970s. (This was ironic given that space settlements would be hugely intensive in terms of resources and capital and require Apollo-like management to succeed.) More sadly, a few people expressed fatalism and even a sense of desperation about the future need for settlements in space: “Whatever I can do,” said one, “may help my beautiful daughter to slip away from this failing civilization here on Earth.”

But space colonies also provoked outrage among some readers. Spending such huge amounts of money to circumvent the planet’s limits struck one reader as “well thought out, rational, very alluring” and also “quite mad.” It appeared as technological fix taken to its logical extreme. For these people, the idea of space settlements violated British economist E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy and his ideals of small-scale appropriate technology. Others detected signs of a massive new federal program and the military-industrial complex at work – “the same old technological whiz-bang and dreary imperialism,” one person said.

An illustration in Brand’s book captured readers’ split opinions. One page showed an artist’s colorful rendition of a spherical space settlement. The facing page presented a 19th century photograph of a Native American couple who appeared to be gazing at it – the text added above the man’s head said, “Goodbye. Good luck.” The woman’s reaction? “Good riddance.”

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I still believe visioneers as a species are essential components to a healthy technological or innovation ecosystem. But, since my book appeared in 2013, I’ve attenuated my enthusiasm. Specifically, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of many of the individuals who fit the category I described. This is, in part, because so many of them – Milner, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, et al. – are white males with Silicon Valley connections and an Ivy League pedigree. Where are the women and people of color? And what’s with the space obsession?

I’m old enough to remember watching the final Apollo missions on television. Part of me loves the idea of spacecraft speeding off to another star system. But another part of me has to agree with those who suggested less-than-radical things like fixing the water supply in Flint or repairing America’s infrastructure. Sure, it’s not as glitzy-sexy as spacecraft and giant lasers. But we should want expansive visions of technological possibilities both here and propelling us out to the stars. That’s a future I’d love to see. Even if it does have a giant laser in it.