Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A geodesic dome designed by R. Buckminster Fuller was constructed to cover the Rotunda Building of the Ford Motor Company, and the project’s huge success initiated a widespread demand for such domes. The U.S. military soon found use for the domes during the Cold War, and private industrial use was not far behind.

Summary of Event

“Dymaxion” Dymaxion was a word that R. Buckminster Fuller liked. Developed through an interaction between Fuller and an advertising specialist, this word became the hallmark of some of his most famous inventions, including the Dymaxion House, the Dymaxion Car, and the Dymaxion Map. He once defined “dymaxion”—a combination of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion”—as “maximum gain of advantage from minimum energy input,” and the word came to mean technologies that provided maximum performance from available knowledge. Geodesic domes Architecture;R. Buckminster Fuller[Fuller] [kw]Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome (Apr., 1953) [kw]Geodesic Dome, Fuller Builds First Industrial (Apr., 1953) Geodesic domes Architecture;R. Buckminster Fuller[Fuller] [g]North America;Apr., 1953: Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome[04110] [g]United States;Apr., 1953: Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome[04110] [c]Architecture;Apr., 1953: Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome[04110] [c]Engineering;Apr., 1953: Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome[04110] [c]Inventions;Apr., 1953: Fuller Builds First Industrial Geodesic Dome[04110] Fuller, R. Buckminster Richter, Don Ford, Henry, II

Although many of Fuller’s early inventions were excellent embodiments of the idea of dymaxion, it was not until he built his geodesic dome, designed when he was in his early fifties, that he had his first great success. He felt strongly that such constructions as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center were heavy and inefficient and that the structures of such innovators as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus architects failed to make the best use of modern technology. He believed that his geodesic dome, in contrast, used to the fullest new materials and the insights of modern science and technology.

Fuller’s geodesic dome grew out of his studies of systems of forces in nature that produce maximum strength with minimal material. He was especially fascinated with the icosahedron, a geometrical shape with twenty equilateral triangular faces that repeatedly recurs in nature, for example, in the protein shells of certain viruses and in the faceted eyes of certain insects. Fuller was also familiar with the ancient and medieval domes that roofed tombs, mosques, and churches, but to him these structures were extremely inefficient, essentially made by the clever piling up of heavy stone blocks. He was attracted to the dome because of its ability to enclose vast volumes of space in relation to surface area, but conventional domes, because of their great weight, were unable to span large distances. Fuller’s light geodesic domes could.

When Fuller began to build model geodesic domes in the 1940’s, they were basically networks of spherical triangles, that is, triangles the three sides of which were arcs of great circles. Indeed, the term “geodesic” had been defined by geometers as the arc on a spherical surface representing the shortest distance between any two points. Fuller, who named his dome after this relationship, viewed his geodesic dome as a three-way grid of great circles.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Fuller developed practical prototypes of geodesic domes through student projects at various universities and technical schools. In this way, he produced a variety of highly sophisticated domes in a fraction of the time that commercial companies would have required. For example, at Black Mountain College Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Fuller and some students used venetian-blind slats to construct a 48-foot-diameter hemispherical dome that was much stronger than a traditional dome made with much more material. They also made a small dome that could be folded into a flat package and opened into a structure strong enough to support eight people.

Fuller’s first large-scale geodesic dome was erected in December, 1950, by some of his former students at the Chicago Institute of Design for the Fuller Research Foundation. Through these and other projects, Fuller’s geodesic domes began to become widely known. To protect his invention, he filed for a patent on December 12, 1951 (the patent was eventually issued to him on June 29, 1954).

In 1952, the Ford Motor Company Ford Motor Company became the first industrial organization licensed to build a geodesic dome under Fuller’s patent. As the centerpiece of the company’s fiftieth anniversary in June, 1953, Henry Ford II wanted to carry out the wish of his grandfather, the first Henry Ford, by erecting a dome over the court of the Rotunda Building at the company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. When he learned that a conventional steel dome would weigh 160 tons, much more than the light walls of the Rotunda Building could support, Ford turned to Fuller, who believed that a geodesic dome could be designed, produced, tested, and installed in the short time available. Fuller regarded his signing the contract for the Ford dome as the fulfillment of a promise he had made early in his career to discover the universe’s principles and forge this knowledge into inventions that would benefit his fellow human beings.

Because of all of his previous design work on domes, Fuller and a young engineer, Don Richter, were quickly able to work out the detailed geometry of the 93-foot-diameter geodesic dome that would be erected atop the Rotunda Building. The dome would be assembled from 19,680 aluminum struts, each about 3 feet long and 5 ounces in weight. Since—to increase the strength of the riveted assembly—the struts would be spaced to an accuracy of 5/1000 of an inch, Fuller had to reduce the error tolerated by the automobile industry’s relatively crude machine tools from 1/100 to 1/1000 of an inch. The actual construction of the dome was straightforward: Workmen riveted the struts into triangles, then joined the triangles into arrays, starting at the apex and jacking the completed sections up as its structure developed, ring by ring.

The completed geodesic dome, which was covered with a translucent plastic skin, weighed only 8.5 tons, a mere 2.5 pounds for each square foot it roofed (in comparison, the dome of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Cathedral weighs 1,350 pounds per square foot of floor covered). The construction of the Rotunda dome took only four months, a tremendously short time for a job of such magnitude, and the result was an immediate success; the public found the splendor of sunlight streaming through the curved honeycomb of triangles magnificent to behold. Architects were also impressed, for the design advantages of the dome were clearly apparent. In a very short time, the geodesic dome had made Fuller famous.

Significance

Fuller’s 1954 patent for the geodesic dome put him in control of any and all geodesic structures to be built. He therefore organized corporations to handle licenses for the use of this and his other patents. Geodesics, Incorporated, dealt with government and armed-services applications of Fuller’s work, and Synergetics, Incorporated, oversaw all design and research for private industry. Fuller hired some of his young disciples as designers and managers for these companies, and because of the great interest in geodesic domes, they soon had much work to do.

The first important business for Fuller’s companies after the Ford Rotunda came not from industry but from the military. The United States Marine Corps needed inexpensive but strong mobile shelters (the tents and semipermanent structures then in use were flimsy and expensive). Fuller responded to this need by designing geodesic domes with wood frames and plastic skins that could be picked up by helicopters and hauled anywhere (the first such airlift and transport of a Fuller dome, which was successful, occurred in February, 1954).

For the Marine Corps, he designed a series of geodesic structures ranging from large domes for aircraft hangars to small, expendable paperboard shelters for a few men. The Marines tested some of the large domes—one was the largest plastic structure ever built—and found that they could be assembled in only fourteen hours yet could withstand wind velocities in excess of 220 miles per hour. The Marines tested various geodesic-dome prototypes for more than two years and concluded that Fuller’s domes were the first basic improvement in mobile military shelters in the past 2,600 years. The report also stated that the structures had only 3 percent of the weight of previous shelters, 6 percent of the packaged volume, and 14 percent of the cost. As a consequence, the Marines purchased more than three hundred of Fuller’s domes and used them all over the world, even in the Antarctic.

Another notable military use of the geodesic domes was along the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line Distant Early Warning Line . Because of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950’s, the United States and Canada believed there was a need to defend themselves against the possibility of a sudden nuclear attack over the polar regions. In response to this threat, officials in the U.S. Defense Department decided to set up a 3,000-mile line of radar installations across the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada. Because of harsh and violent weather along the DEW Line, radar installations had to be housed in structures that could withstand winds of more than 200 miles per hour and yet be made from materials that would not interfere with the radar’s microwave beam. The structures would also have to be deliverable by air and capable of being assembled quickly on the ground.

Fuller had accepted the challenge of designing such a structure, and with the help of his associates, he came up with a plastic radar dome, later nicknamed “radome,” that could be delivered by plane in a knocked-down form. This dome was first tested on the peak of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, where it successfully endured winds of 182 miles per hour. This test passed, Fuller’s radomes were built, flown to the stipulated locations along the DEW Line, and erected by Inuit labor in a very short time.

While working for the military, Fuller was able to augment international recognition of his geodesic dome’s value by participating in the Tenth International Design Exhibition Tenth International Design Exhibition (1954) , widely known as the Triennale, held in Milan, Italy, in 1954. He submitted two geodesic domes made of paperboard and plastic, one of which won the exhibition’s grand prize. Further international fame followed when Fuller designed a geodesic dome for the United States Pavilion in the 1956 International Trade Fair International Trade Fair (1956) in Kabul, Afghanistan. This dome, then the world’s largest geodesic structure, was erected by local labor in two days and was the hit of the fair. It attracted more attention than all the other exhibits, including those from the Soviet Union and China. Capitalizing on this great success, the U.S. government had the dome flown to other cities throughout Asia, where it served to dramatize American ingenuity, imagination, and technological creativity.

Aiding this large-scale manufacturing and marketing of the domes was Henry J. Kaiser Kaiser, Henry J. , owner of one of the world’s great aluminum companies Kaiser Aluminum , who became interested in geodesic domes through one of Fuller’s former students. He decided that his hotel complex, the Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, needed a concert auditorium, and he obtained a license from Fuller to manufacture a geodesic dome to cover a two-thousand-seat hall. Fuller designed a 145-foot-diameter dome for Kaiser, who had it manufactured in Oakland, California, and shipped to Honolulu in February, 1957. Workers there assembled the aluminum-skinned dome, which weighed only thirty tons, in the surprisingly short time of twenty-two hours. This domed concert hall had excellent acoustics, and its success so excited Kaiser that, with Fuller’s permission, he began making aluminum geodesic domes in his West Coast plant. Kaiser Aluminum produced domes in a variety of sizes and costs for such uses as theaters, banks, and community centers.

By 1971, when Fuller’s patent for the geodesic dome expired, more than fifty thousand licensed domes existed worldwide, a figure that does not include the many “outlaw” domes built on back lots and in other infrequently visited areas. Fuller, whom critics called a naïve romantic, foresaw even more extensive and grandiose uses of his invention. He envisioned a dome 2 miles in diameter and 1 mile high covering a large part of New York City. Because domes could create their own environment, he predicted that they would be used in the Antarctic, at the bottom of the oceans, and on the moon. On the other hand, many architects found Fuller’s proposals fanciful and impractical, and city planners thought that his geodesic domes looked out of place amid the rectangular building blocks of traditional cities. Despite these criticisms, Fuller maintained his faith in geodesic domes as a new type of habitable space able to differentiate human ecological patterns from those of nature and traditional technology.

Fuller’s geodesic domes now cover more ground than the buildings of any architect in history, but his overall achievement cannot be judged solely on the basis of them. For him, the geodesic dome was simply a step in the development of technology that would make the good life available to everyone. He worked from the assumption that creative intelligence is limitless and that technological progress can provide every human being with a rich and satisfying life. Fuller, who introduced the term “Spaceship Earth,” advocated using the world’s resources wisely and fairly. Geodesic domes Architecture;R. Buckminster Fuller[Fuller]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, R. Buckminster. Inventions: The Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. This book, which Fuller wrote just before he died, is organized around the most significant of his more than two thousand patents, including those related to the geodesic dome. A large-format volume, with many photographs, detailed figures, and diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatch, Alden. Buckminster Fuller: At Home in the Universe. New York: Crown, 1974. Hatch, a close friend of Fuller for sixty years, has written an affectionate biography that interprets the designer’s life in the classic pattern of early troubles, persistent struggles, and ultimate triumph. Intended for general audiences, this biography presents Fuller as a visionary, inventor, and educator with a magnificent power to persuade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenner, Hugh. Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller. New York: William Morrow, 1973. The purpose of Kenner’s book is to make Fuller’s ideas and inventions accessible to a wide variety of readers. He uses biography, geometry, poetry, and other disciplines to clarify the complexities of Fuller’s writings. The appendixes include a helpful glossary. Annotated bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marks, Robert, and R. Buckminster Fuller. The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. 1960. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1973. Gives a clear verbal and pictorial explanation of Fuller’s most important concepts and creations. Includes a good treatment of several of his most important geodesic domes. Extensively illustrated, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Sidney. Wizard of the Dome: R. Buckminster Fuller, Designer for the Future. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. Written by a popularizer of science, this account of Fuller’s life and career is meant to simplify his ideas for novices with little previous knowledge about Fuller or his work. Illustrated with many diagrams and a packet of photographs. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sieden, Lloyd Steven. Buckminster Fuller’s Universe: An Appreciation. Foreword by Norman Cousins. New York: Plenum Press, 1989. Paperback edition published 2000. A 511-page biographical work that celebrates Fuller’s engineering and architectural brilliance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snyder, Robert, ed. R. Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Snyder, Fuller’s son-in-law, draws on a film he made about Fuller’s life and work, and on material from the Fuller family archives, to give an interesting personal account. Numerous photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zung, Thomas T. K., ed. Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for the New Millennium. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. An anthology of Fuller’s writings compiled and edited by Fuller’s architectural partner Thomas T. K. Zung. Each selection includes an introduction by a noted thinker in either the personal or scholarly style.

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