[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