Portrait of the inventor as a verb

He looked and saw a lot like Mr. Magoo, he was a college dropout, and he often started lectures by relating experiences he’d allegedly retained from infancy.

And yet Buckminster Fuller was awarded 25 patents, wrote 28 books and received 47 honorary doctorate degrees and dozens of major architectural and design awards, along with the Medal of Freedom. He was a pragmatic pacifist and an indefatigable traveler, circling the globe 57 times as a cheerleader for great design and what he called “comprehensivism.”

And midway through his topsy-turvy career track of more than 30 jobs, he stopped in to teach at Black Mountain College during the summers of 1948 and 1949.

The principal lesson Fuller sought to implant in his students was the danger of specialization. He liked to remind listeners that dinosaurs were specialists, and that when conditions changed, they vanished — whereas human beings are inherently nonspecialists, and have moved into every ecological niche on the planet. He felt that only a generalist, or, as he termed it, a comprehensivist, could maintain the open-mindedness necessary to discovery.

In one of his recorded lectures, “Dare to be Naive,” Fuller said: “I think an enormous number of people miss everything because they say, ‘I know that, I know that, I know that.’ … I really deliberately try to keep myself as a child, and the child is naive. That’s what the word means: ‘being as a child.'”

Fuller’s childlike approach to structure led him to his most famous invention, the geodesic dome. He later said his first model was built in grade school with toothpicks and peas. While his classmates assembled rectangular structures that collapsed easily, he intuited that triangles were structurally stable — and his instructor was soon calling other teachers into the classroom to see the strange object he had created.

The first successful large-scale dome was built by Fuller and his students at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1949.

In another lecture, “Earthians’ Critical Moment,” Fuller observed that ” … in 1970, we passed a threshold where it could be demonstrated, engineering-wise, that if we took all the metals going into armaments and put them into what you call livingry, instead of killingry, that within a design revolution of only 10 years we could have all humanity living at a higher standard of living than anybody had ever known, on a completely sustainable basis, while phasing out forever all further use of fossil fuels and atomic energy.

“We could,” he concluded, “live entirely on our energy income.”

Until his death in 1983, Fuller believed that if we failed to change over from killingry to livingry, we were doomed to atomic annihilation — an ever-more-ominous possibility as global proliferation continues.

Not content, however, with the artificial basis of Euclidian geometry, Fuller reinvented mathematics as synergetics, developing a system based on 60-degree angles instead of 90. In his 1979 magnum opus, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, he explained how molecules are assembled through the closest packing of spheres, and that geodesic structures abounded in nature.

His prediction that a molecule must exist that contains 60 carbon atoms proved true in 1985. The newly discovered carbon-60 molecule was dubbed Buckminsterfullerine, or, informally, a “buckyball.” Buckyballs are very stable, huge by molecular standards and uniquely hollow. Scientists place the discovery on a par with that of benzene, which revolutionized science in the late 1800s.

The trail of research is already leading toward radical HIV treatment, rocket fuel, superconductors and super lubricants.

Currently showing at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Ideas + Inventions: Buckminster Fuller and Black Mountain College features two- and three-dimensional works, highlighting Fuller’s summers at the school. But the show also includes works from throughout his multifarious career. Viewing everything from a futuristic auto to modular housing to the most accurate world map yet devised, visitors have to come away slightly boggled.

And even the boggling is part of the magic. As Bucky Fuller used to say, “I seem to be a verb.”

He does.


Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (56 Broadway, in Asheville) will host Ideas + Inventions: Buckminster Fuller and Black Mountain College through Saturday, Nov. 26. Free admission. Open 12-4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. See www.blackmountaincollege.org or call 350-8484 for more information.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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