My History Hero: Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983)

Chosen by James Dyson, inventor, industrial engineer and the founder of Dyson

Richard Buckminster standing next to his draft of a house of the 21st century. (Ullstein picture via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Buckminster Fuller was an American systems theorist, designer, inventor and futurist, as well as a prolific author. He popularised the term ‘Spaceship Earth’, and came up with a string of inventions, the best known of which is probably the geodesic dome (or sphere) – a lattice shell structure such as that used at the Eden Project. He was awarded a string of US patents and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When did you first hear about Buckminster Fuller?

I was actually a bit of a lost soul studying at the Royal College of Art. But when I learnt about Fuller’s pioneering spirit, I began feverishly working with new materials, ideas and people. It was a revelation.

What kind of person was he?

Fuller was a dreamer. Not in the romantic or whimsical sense, rather he had ideas that went beyond conventional lines of thought – what I call ‘wrong thinking’. Did he care that people didn’t like his designs on ascetic principles? No, he persevered because he knew his ideas worked well.

What made him a hero?

Failure. Buckminster Fuller failed at Harvard and had no technical training at all, but his brilliance has impacted on structural engineering the world over – the permanent US base built on the Antarctic wasteland is a geodesic dome. Lightweight, strong and easily constructed, geodesic domes challenge our preconceptions of what a structure should be. I want the next generation to be excited by his work. So, armed with only cocktail sticks and jelly tots, the James Dyson Foundation challenges children to build their own geodesic dome – hoping to inspire the next Buckminster Fuller.

What was his finest hour?

Buckminster’s spherical design for his geodesic dome has inherently high strength-to-weight ratio. When carbon nanotechnology’s extreme strength was researched, the same spherical principle was discovered to be behind its stability. So 50 years later our most advanced technology is proving that Fuller’s wrong thinking was in the right direction. In homage to him, two types of molecules have been named fullerenes and buckyballs.

Is there anything you don’t like about him?

He was outlandish, obstinate and dared to take on the establishment. What’s not to like? This led him to design and engineer things people had never dreamed of. I designed a mushroom-shaped theatre based on Fuller’s geodesic principles. Sadly it never received funding; perhaps the mushroom shape and angular aluminum tubing didn’t fit the ascetic culture of theatre.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

We both had to persevere to get people to see the value of our ideas. But I see more of Fuller’s characteristics in the inventors and inventions that enter the James Dyson Award. Young graduate students of design and engineering enter the award with ideas that are fearless, striking and unconventional.

If you could meet him what would you ask him?

Nothing is ever perfect in an engineer’s eyes. Dyson engineers are constantly designing, testing and reinventing. I’d love to see what sort of technology Buckminster Fuller and Dyson engineers would be capable of inventing together. The beautiful thing about Buckminster is that his ideas can be applied in a multitude of ways, giving countless possible inventions.

James Dyson was talking to York Membery

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Sir James Dyson is best known as the inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. One of Britain’s most successful businessmen, he is also the inventor of the Ballbarrow and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. In 2002 he set up the James Dyson Foundation