When Fuller was seventeen years old, in 1912, he spent the majority of his annual budget for attending Harvard University in a week entertaining actress Marilyn Miller and her friends. In the course of his revelry he skipped his first mid-year exam. Being unable to pay his tuition and having brought shame to his school and family, Fuller was expelled. His family sent him to work in a Canadian factory to get a taste of manual labor.
In February 1914 a cousin (or a distant relative) of Fuller secured an apprentice mechanic job for him at the then-new Connecticut Canada Textile Company on Rue du Pacifique between Rue Kitchener and Rue Galt O in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The cotton mills operated on a line shaft, where a single motor powered belts which turned machinery throughout the building. Line shaft factories give priority to the belt, not ventilation or sunlight. Dust and noise from the belt were constant. Fuller’s job was to install new equipment and to keep the belt on line. Fuller wrote:
Here I learned to assemble and erect cotton mill machinery. I finally mastered on my own the assemblage and installation of each and every type of cotton manufacturing machine. The installation included running of the pulley-shafting throughout the buildings and its over-all alignment from the power house take-off through to each belted-in and aligned production machine. – letter to John McHale, 7 January 1955.
Fuller claimed his time at the Connecticut Canada Textile Company was his first exposure to industry, metallurgy, drafting and keeping a notebook. While Fuller had invented before, now he saw invention as a marketable skill. Not everything that is invented or marketed comes to fruition. Fuller claimed he designed improved mill machine parts but never claimed that these parts were manufactured, tested or used. Three years later, as a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve Force, he claimed to have invented a crane and hook system to upend overturned airplanes in the water. Fuller claimed this device was built and saved many lives, but no record of this crane exists in his papers or in Navy records.
Between his job at the Connecticut Canada Textile Company and the U.S. Navy Reserve Force, Fuller was re-admitted to Harvard and expelled a second time. The reasons for his second expulsion have never been specified beyond his “lack of sustained interest in the processes within the University.”
Fuller placed himself and his ideas at the center of wherever he was. When Fuller worked for Phelps Dodge Corporation in 1938, he used copper as the standard for measuring human progress in an appendix to his book Nine Chains to the Moon. In 1951 Fuller was the Visiting Seminar Director at North Carolina State University, and the standard for measuring human progress was cotton. In “The Textile Mill of Tomorrow” (American Fabrics magazine Spring 1953), Fuller wrote: “Manufacture of cotton goods is one of the oldest of industrial enterprises. Its mechanical evolution initiated much of the general scheme of specialized and integrated functioning in industry.”
The Textile Mill of the Tomorrow benefits from “a comprehensive resurvey of cotton manufacturing evolution from our great hindsight advantage,” revealing assumptions about cotton mills no longer relevant to an industrial society. For example, in the past a cotton mill had to be near a river to take advantage of water wheel power “requiring translations of power by belting pulleys and meticulous parallelling of shafting in the most geometrically economical patterns.” Pulley shafting is “piecemeal and intermittent,” limiting, requiring precise alignment. The line shaft work that was a point of personal pride for Fuller was an anachronism when carried out by others. Line shaft power transmission was not the only anachronism in the textile mill of the past. Walls and floors were artifacts that made sense in ancient history but which needed to be resurveyed. “Logical for the preservation of the expensive [mill] machinery was its housing: one hundred percent compressively-conceived stone masonry for vertical components, and heavily sectioned wooden platforms for horizontal components.” Walls and floors might provide sunlight to one story but not the rest, and “there was a consequent lack of energy efficiency in providing desirable air conditioning.” The resurveyed textile mill was a negation of Fuller’s experience in the Connecticut Canada Textile Company. In place of a line drive, electric motors. In place of dark walls and floors, a lattice dome and floor that allowed sunlight in every location. In place of stifling air, an open breeze. And in place of noise, a lack of humans to hear noise.
The 90% Automatic Cotton Mill of American Fabrics includes several of Fuller’s interests to date. The building is suspended from a six-sided central mast, as was his 4-D House of 1928. Waste is packaged in the building as waste is packaged in his 1937 Dymaxion Bathroom. Fuller compared man to machinery in his 1938 book Nine Chains to the Moon. He wrote a man is:
A self-balancing, 28-jointed adapter-base biped; an electro-mechanical reduction-plant, integral with segregated stowages of special energy extracts in storage batteries, for subsequent actuation of thousands of hydraulic and pneumatic pumps, with motors attached; 62,000 miles of capillaries; millions of warning signal, railroad and conveyor systems; crushers and cranes (of which the arms are magnificent 23-jointed affairs with self-surfacing and lubricating systems, and a universally distributed telephone system needing no service for 70 years if well managed); the whole, extraordinarily complex mechanism guided with exquisite precision from a turret in which are located telescopic and microscopic self-registering and recording range finders, a spectroscope, et cetera, the turret control being closely allied with an air conditioning intake-and-exhaust, and a main fuel intake.
The “totally new start in cotton mill conception” would be a machine as a man, “similar to the digestive, shunting, secretive, and regenerative process of the human anatomy.” The new mill would not contain men, it would be a man as in der Mensch als Industriepalast. Air circulates in the building in a torus fashion as it did in his Dymaxion Deployment Units of 1940. The outer shell of the building is a geodesic dome (type 2, 16 frequency), a form Fuller had begun to explore at Black Mountain College in 1948. The function of the “robot weather control tower” at the summit of the mill in some drawings is not explained, but it is a tensegrity tower as Fuller had seen in the work of Kenneth Snelson at Black Mountain College in June 1948. In other drawings it resembles the Skylon tower from the 1951 Festival of Britain. Photographs of the four-foot model show several objects at the top: a ring, a spiral, a tensegrity.
Raw material was to be brought into the mill on the ground floor. There it would be loaded into an icosahedral elevator and moved upwards for processing. Each floor would have a specialized function. The uppermost of eight floors (including the ground floor) was for picking, the seventh floor for carding, the sixth for framing, the fifth for spinning, the fourth for slashing and spooling, the third and second for looms, and the ground floor was for storage, office, and shipping of the finished fabrics. Each floor was made up of octet truss frames, strong enough to hold machinery but porous enough to pass the cotton between floors at any location.
The character of the 90% Automatic Cotton Mill was defined by Fuller. The physical model of the mill was constructed by students at North Carolina State University. A photograph by Ralph Mills in American Fabrics shows twelve of the twenty students who worked on this model. They are (clockwise, starting with Fuller): R. Buckminster Fuller, Jeff Brooks III, Ligon Flynn, Al Cameron, Ralph Knowles, Richard Leaman, Bruno Leon, T. C. Howard, John Caldwell, Frosty Coile, Paul Shimamato, Fred Taylor, Sherman Pardue, Jr. Fuller marshaled “all [NCSU’s] architectural students, within the N.C. State Engineering, Textile, and Business Administration Schools and expert consultation” to his project. Fuller’s students toured regional cotton mills and built the model to Fuller’s specifications. It was later described as a ‘fountain factory,’ as raw materials were imported at the base and finished products were exported from the summit. The model is no longer extant but a number of detailed photographs are preserved by North Carolina State University.
The 90% Automatic Cotton Mill was a successful model that remains unrealized, in part and in whole. Although there are thousands of tensegrity sculptures, tensegrity has yet to be used in architecture. Multi-story geodesic hemispheres have been built but none that are suspended from a central mast. The octet truss has been used in roofing (notably the Ford Rotunda dome), as scaffolding that can support suspended weight and in the temporary structures of A. G. Bell such as his triangle tower and Cygnet flyer. But the octet truss has never been used as long-term load-bearing floors. The most realized component of the 90% Automatic Cotton Mill is factory automation.
Factory automation has deep roots in the textile industry. Automated looms of the 1700s were controlled by punch cards. Punch cards were the data storage media for the 1890 US Census, which was carried out by Tabulating Machine Company, which later became IBM. Philip K. Dick wrote of an automated factory in his 1955 short story “Autofac.” General Motors experimented with a ‘lights out’ factory (requiring no humans, no lights are needed) in the 1980s, and the Japanese robotics firm FANUC has owned a robot factory that produces robots since 2001.
Where there is factory automation, there are displaced workers. A 90% automatic cotton mill means 90% automatic unemployment for former cotton mill workers. Fuller anticipated complete unemployment to be both inevitable and desirable.
[Entire automation of work industry] was always inherent in the intellectual pacing of industry. Its complete attainment is suddenly imminent. Marx’s workers, the automaton, the muscles and reflex machine, is replaced by automation. Man, losing all significance as physical producer, becomes utterly essential to the industrial equation only as the regenerative consumer. The industrial wealth potential of automated production capability may only be realized by an anticipatory designed, systematically established and credit-accounting matching consumer capacity. – Ideas and Integrities
It is easy to demonstrate to those who will take the time and the trouble to unbias their thoughts that automation swiftly can multiply the physical energy of wealth much more rapidly and profusely than can man’s muscle and brain-reflexed, manually-controlled production. On the other hand humans alone can foresee, integrate, and anticipate the new tasks to be done by progressively automated wealth-producing machinery. To take advantage of the fabulous magnitudes of real wealth waiting to be employed intelligently by humans and unblock automation’s postponement by organized labor we must give each human who is or becomes unemployed a life fellowship in research and development or in just simple thinking. – Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
It was not difficult for the intellectual Fuller to work in a cotton mill. He could not imagine it would be difficult in turn for the average cotton mill worker to become an intellectual. Fuller wrote as workers are displaced by automation they should be given a credit, a fellowship, so that they can consume the wealth now generated by machines. Fuller got his money for college from his family, he got paid by a college to lecture and he got his cotton mill model as free student labor. Perhaps in the same way Fuller projected his own body on buildings, his own experiences on society, his own preferences on the universe, he projected that all those who did not work could get their support from… somewhere. “I see the hydrogen atom doesn’t have to earn a living before behaving like a hydrogen atom. In fact, as best I can see, only human beings operate on the basis of ‘having to earn a living.’ The concept is one introduced into social conventions only by the temporal power structure’s dictums of the ages. If I am doing what God’s evolutionary strategy needs to have accomplished, I need spend no further time worrying about such matters.”
Fuller, R. Buckminster: Nine Chains to the Moon. Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc. 1938.
Architectural Forum Volume 96 Number 5. May 1952. “Factory of the Future.”
Fuller, R. Buckminster: American Fabrics. New York: Reporter Publications Inc., Spring 1953.
Fuller, R. Buckminster: Ideas and Integrities. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1963.
Fuller, R. Buckminster: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Pocket Books 1969.
Fuller, R. Buckminster and Robert Marks: The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. Garden City: Anchor Books 1973.
Kenner, Hugh: Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller. New York: William Morrow & Company Inc. 1973.
Lord, Athena V.: Pilot for Spaceship Earth. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. 1978.
Potter, Robert R.: Buckminster Fuller. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press 1999.
Sieden, Lloyd S.: Buckminster Fuller’s Universe. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing 2000.
Krausse, Joachim and Claude Lichtenstein (ed): Your Private Sky: Discourse. Baden: Lars Muller Publisher 2001.
Lichtenstein, Claude (ed): Your Private Sky: The Art of Design Science. Baden: Lars Muller Publisher 2001.
Zung, Thomas T. K. ed.: Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for the New Millennium. New York: St. Martin’s Press 2001.
Lorance, Loretta: Becoming Bucky Fuller. Cambridge: MIT Press 2009.
Chu, Hsiao-Yun and Roberto G. Trujille: New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2009.
Wikipedia: History of Numerical Control.
Wikipedia: Lights Out Manufacturing.
Wikipedia: Punched Card.
Buckminster Fuller is widely known as the inventor of the geodesic dome, tensegrity, the Dymaxion Dwelling Unit and more. The Lost Inventions of Buckminster Fuller brings Fuller’s role in all of these discoveries into question, while presenting hard evidence that he is under-credited for many other remarkable inventions.
Trevor Blake (author of The Buckminster Fuller Bibliography) is a leading independent scholar on Fuller. Also found in this book are an analysis of geodesic dome integrity when subject to earthquakes, the influence on Fuller by Technocracy Incorporated, the influence of Fuller on the television program Lost, and much more.
The Buckminster Fuller Bibliography is the most complete and accurate bibliography of “Bucky” Fuller to date. Excellent tool for tracking Fuller’s trajectory, and for finding rare titles in the field for your own collection. Authored by Trevor Blake of synchronofile.com, an independent resource on Fuller consulted around the world. Updated for this Kindle edition. US$ 1.99.
[An expanded, corrected and illustrated update of this article appears in The Lost Inventions of Buckminster Fuller.]
The author of this essay is not a legal expert, and this essay is not legal advice. Consult a legal professional before acting on any of the information found in this essay.
Inventions, the Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller is a good introduction to Fuller’s many inventions. It is the basis for this overview of Fuller’s patented work. But Inventions does not include all of Fuller’s inventions, nor are all the inventions in Inventions by Fuller. Some inventions relevant to Fuller’s work are not included in Inventions. This essay will detail the lost inventions of Buckminster Fuller. Part one offers undocumented information about the illustrations in Inventions and lists the patents in Inventions that were awarded to Fuller and owned by Fuller. Part two is a collection of patents in Inventions that were awarded to Fuller but assigned to someone else, patents by Fuller and someone else, and patents not by Fuller but included in Inventions, the Patented Works of R. Buckminster Fuller. Part three are the lost inventions of Buckminster Fuller, works that were not patented or which do not appear in Inventions, and works that should have been in Inventions but were not.
Three inventions found in Inventions not patented by Fuller or by anyone else: the 4D House, the Dymaxion House and the Octa Spinner.
The 4D House has no patent. Inventions claims the patent was submitted in 1928, rejected, and Fuller did not re-submit out of ignorance that this was an option. Fuller does not state why he did not re-submit when he learned that this was an option. In Buckminster Fuller’s Universe, author Lloyd Sieden writes that Fuller offered the rights to the 4D House to the American Institute of Architects as a gift and that this gift was rejected. Inventions also claims the 4D House patent is rectilinear like a conventional house because his unnamed patent attorney advised him it would be more convincing to the patent examiners. The illustrations of the 4D House in Inventions are generally of a hexagonal building rather than the rectilinear building in the patent itself. The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller calls the hexagonal 4D House the ‘clean-up model’ in illustration 40 and is seen in illustrations 40-41 and 49-64. Variations of the hexagonal 4D House are seen in Dymaxion World illustrations 2, 16-39 and 66.
Loretta Lorance’s book Becoming Bucky Fuller is the definitive account of Fuller’s work for Stockade Systems, his 4D House and the earliest models of the Dymaxion House. Fuller’s Chronofile (the multi-ton collection of papers Fuller kept of his work) is now in the posession of Stanford University. Lorance is among the first to have full access to the source material rather than relying solely on Fuller’s lectures. According to the source documents, Fuller was not ignorant of the patent process because he did pursue it before, at the time and afterwards. The patent for the 4D House was abandoned because of the 43 claims made in his application, all 43 could be found in earlier patents. Attorney D. H. Sweet is blamed for the rectilinear 4D House in his patent application but Fuller’s own sketches to this point had been rectilinear.
The Dymaxion House / Wichita House has no patent. In Inventions Fuller directs the readers to Grunch of Giants as to why the Dymaxion House did not go into production. Grunch of Giants claims this was due to a lack of a distribution system, difficulties with building codes, resistance from electricians and plumbers unions and an unwillingness by banks to offer mortgages. But there is no published explanation why Fuller or someone else did not patent the Dymaxion House. The Wichita House appears in Dymaxion World illustrations 184-227. Much of Fuller Houses by Federico Neder concerns the Dymaxion House. The most important information on why the Dymaxion House never went into production can be found on pages 85-114 of Pawley’s Buckminster Fuller. Namely, this was due to Fuller’s “fanatical determination to retain complete personal control of the project and refine the house still further before putting it into production.” Although there were estimates of 250,000 Dymaxion Houses to be produced each year and 37,000 unsolicited orders before production began, the only Dymaxion Houses ever made were incomplete or miniature models. Of all the lost inventions of Buckminster Fuller, this is the one that could have done the most good in the world. The Dymaxion House was just as Fortune magazine described it: the industry that industry missed.
The Octa Spinner has no patent. In Inventions, Fuller writes: “I did not go through with the octet spinner patent after filing because the expense of patent work is very great, and I’m not in the manufacturing world, and I felt that it would not be worth carrying any further.” The Mind’s Eye of Buckminster Fuller by Donald W. Robertson, however, claims that Fuller’s initial application was rejected and that he only ended the process after carrying it further into a second application. The Stockade patents are clearly part of the manufacturing world, and much of his work on shelters could be considered the same. The Chronofile contains a folder labeled “Original Patents file: Octa Spinner [application withdrawn – case no. 349.021] March, 1965.”
Two patents related to the Dymaxion Deployment Unit have a questionable history. Fuller’s Design for a Prefabricated House (133,411) is a near-identical copy of the earlier 133,418. Design for a Prefabricated House (133,418) was filed by Victor C. Norquist and assigned to the Dymaxion Company on 11 August 1942. Norquist had dozens of patents to his credit. Many were assigned to Butler Manufacturing, which produced the Dymaxion Deployment Units. Norquist’s patent reads in part: “Be it known that I, Victor C. Norquist […] have invented a new, original and ornamental Design for a Prefabricated House of which the following is a specification… ” Not appearing in Inventions is Fuller’s patent 133,411, awarded on 11 August 1942, for Design for a Prefabricated House. Fuller’s patent reads in part: “Be it known that I, Richard Buckminster Fuller […] have invented a new, original and ornamental Design for a Prefabricated House of which the following is a specification… ” The text of 133,418 (Norquist) and 133,411 (Fuller) is nearly identical and the illustrations are nearly identical. The date of each patent being assigned to the Dymaxion Company is identical. Norquist filed on 24 May 1941 and Fuller filed a week later on 31 May 1941. Norquist’s patent was awarded two years before either of Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit patents appearing in Inventions (2,343,764 and 2,351,419).
Dymaxion patent Fastening Means 2,466,013 is not mentioned in Fuller’s work at all. Fastening Means (2,466,013) was filed by Bill Dean Eaton and assigned to the Dymaxion Company on 5 April 1949. This invention is lost in the literature on Fuller and the Dymaxion Deployment Unit. It is not mentioned in Inventions or Dymaxion World or any similar title, although it is intimately related to Fuller’s work. James Monroe Hewitt’s patent 1,633,702 for Building Structure (28 June 1927) appears in both the Chronofile and Inventions. Hewitt’s earlier patent 1,631,373 for Partition Walls (7 June 1927) appears in the Chronofile but not in Inventions. Again, the earlier patent work of others is left out of Fuller’s book Inventions although it is intimately related to his own work.
More than a dozen inventions claimed by Fuller do not appear in Inventions but do appear in Dymaxion World or other titles. These include variations of the 4D House and the geodesic dome, a number of storage systems and furniture items, and others. Two artifacts that do not appear in Inventions will be detailed here. These are the fog gun and Fuller’s possible role in the development of disc breaks.
The Fog Gun appears in Dymaxion World illustration 88-92 but not in Inventions. Dymaxion World, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe and other sources quote Fuller claiming that while in the Navy he was able to clean grease off his hands by the mist eternally surrounding ships at sea. The fog gun was a means of directing atomized water under pressure for hygiene purposes. The fog gun is mentioned in Fuller’s 1938 book Nine Chains to the Moon. Dymaxion World claims the fog gun was tested at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1948 “and subsequently at Yale and other universities.” In these tests a one-hour “massaging pressure bath” used one pint (.47 liters) of water. In session 11 part 2 of Fuller’s 42-hour lecture “Everything I Know,” Fuller claims professional dermatologists were consulted in researching the fog gun. Dymaxion World continues by saying “If fog gun bathing were done in front of a heat lamp, [all the effects of bathing] could be effected without the use of any bathroom. Since there would be no run-off waters, tons of plumbing and enclosing walls could be eliminated, and bathing would become as much an ‘in-the-bedroom’ process as dressing.” Buckminster Fuller’s Universe claims the test of the fog gun found it to be “a completely satisfactory system of cleansing, which, in fact, caused less damage to skin than ordinary soap and water. Thus, another significant artifact was created and left until a time when future generations would require it.” Has that generation arrived?
Fuller seems to have had some role in the development of disc brakes during his employment at Phelps Dodge in 1937. Buckminster Fuller’s Universe describes Fuller’s invention as “a revolutionary solid bronze drum fitted with rubber insets to dissipate heat very rapidly, thereby solving [problems] which had plagued automobile and truck breaking systems for decades. His new breaks also cut stopping times by nearly 50 percent and were the forerunner of the now-popular disc breaks.” Grunch of Giants describes this invention as “carbon blocks-inserted, copper disc-brakes” that were “successfully demonstrated.” BuckyWorks claims that Fuller had considered disc brakes for the second Dymaxion Car (circa 1934). Are Fuller’s contribution to disc brakes (like his contribution to tension-supported tents) part of his most-seen and least-appreciated legacy?
The Chronofile is now housed at Stanford University. It contains a number of works-in-progress that are not found in any of Fuller’s published work, either during his life or after. These include “Energy Storage / Switching 1968-1969;” “Electronic Computer Energy Transformation 1969-1972;” “Metabolics Money 7/11/1973;” “Helicopter Rotor Sail 1976;” “De-Resonated Tensegrity Dome 1981;” and “Methods and Apparatus for Constructing Spheres 7/1/1982.” Hopefully over time these lost inventions will see print in some form.
Inventions includes the Great Britain patent for the Dymaxion Car. Otherwise, no international patents appear in Inventions. But Fuller applied for and was sometimes awarded other international patents, as found in the Chronofile. Canadian patents include the Geodesic Dome in 1955, the Octet Trus and the Plydome in 1957, the Paperboard Dome in 1959, Tensegrity in 1960, the Laminar Dome in 1961, Star Tensegrity in 1968. Japanese patents include the Monohex Dome 1979 and in 1965 something called the “Octa-Hedronal Truss.” The Hex-Pent Dome was patented in Australia, Canada, India, Israel and Italy in 1973. Non-symetrical Tensegrity was patented in Canada, Great Britain, India, Italy and Japan in 1977. Fuller sought intellectual property rights in Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, The Congo, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Finland, France, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordon, Kenya, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Uruguay, Venezuela and West Germany.
Fuller had at least two reasons for seeking patent control over his inventions. These were to prevent others from profiting from his inventions and to document what one person can achieve. Donald W. Robertson wrote a book about his experience as Fuller’s patent lawyer titled The Mind’s Eye of Buckminster Fuller. Robertson described why Fuller sought patents. “While Fuller did not wish to seek patent profits by ‘selling’ efforts, he was adamant in seeking to forestall efforts of others to profit by making unauthorized use of his inventions.” The Chronofile includes legal disputes over royalties with North American Aviation between 1958 and 1961 and with Ernest Okress between 1978 and 1979. According to Siobhan Roberts’ book on Donald Coxeter, King of Infinite Space, Fuller’s patent on the Radome was defended in Canada by the United States Department of Defence. Fuller hoped that the long-term and public nature of the US Patent Office would serve as a long-term and public record of his work. Fuller wrote in Inventions: “The public record established by my patents […] can serve as a critical appraisal of the historical relevance, practicality, and relative effectiveness of my half-century’s experimental commitment to discover what, if anything, an individual human being eschewing politics and money-making can do effectively on behalf of all humanity.”
R. Buckminster Fuller described himself as a “terrific package of experiences.” The record of Fuller’s uncredited duplication of prior work suggests that he was at times a terrific package of other people’s experiences.
- Trevor Blake
Trevor Blake is the author of the Buckminster Fuller Bibliography, available at synchronofile.com
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