interview with r. buckminster fuller
R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER …. I took various actions. But today I seem to be coming into phase and more and more people want to hear, and if there is any validity in what I have been thinking – and it seems to be valid by virtue of the actual projections that I made of things that might be going to happen – they seem t be happening right on schedule, and that really tends to accredit me particularly to the young world; and so inasmuch as they want to know, you have a fundamental responsibility to be sure to give – if you have anything that may be useful at all.
GUSTAV METZGER Could I just lead into my first question here, which is that in The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller by Robert W. Marks there is a picture of research students at the Institute of Design in Chicago, 1948, testing your fog gun. Well, the question is: at the time that you produced this idea, were you aware that this is the kind of technology that fits into the development of space flight? Were you concerned about living under the conditions of space – in 1948?
RBF In 1948, no, nor in 1927, when I conceived of the fog gun – that shows how the time lags go between 1927 and 1948. That’s 21 years before I even had a group of students who were interested in trying to do it; and from there on several groups – first the group in Chicago and then students at Yale – and we really demonstrated quite clearly that you can clean the skin really effectively with air under high pressure. Water – due to the kinetics (that’s the weight of the water) –if you needlepoint it you get so it breaks our skin; but you can get the good air, which has very little weight, under very high pressure and not bruise your skin at all. Furthermore, our skin, as we began to be able to demonstrate by using a microscope making photographs of human skin – we would take a human hand with different types of dirt –we were able to classify different dirts and scobo which hasn’t any dirt; and we had a holding device made by a plaster cast of the hand which was held so that it did not move, and we had it on a lathe (this holding thing), and then had the camera mounted on a microscope, and we were able to make microscope photographs which really raised the dirt on the fingers. So it’s really that our skin looks like a coral reef – really open coral –and what happens is the air under pressure gets in underneath, and the oxygen gets there and literally oxidizes the top molecules and they simply release, and that’s what’s going on with our skin anyway; so it simply accelerates the skin surfacing. And this became a beautiful way for your skin to become clean because, simply, the molecules which are about to release anyway get accelerated by more oxygen, and they and all the dirt just blow away.
GM Is this kind of technique in use now in the American space programme?
RBF I’m not a promoter: you cannot be a scientist and have prejudices and biases, and you can’t be a promoter; what you find out cannot be accredited; nor do you really find out very much. So I make findings and I reduce them to practice: I’ll make the tool, I’ll make the experiment, so we know what we are talking about, and then I find that from there on it is not long before emergencies occur and people have to employ what you’ve found.
GM Well, could I ask you this question? I’ve been studying this very interesting book by Marks, which is the best on…
RBF You just ask anything you want, sir.
GM Yes. The multiple deck 4-D house, 1927, you have this idea of a Zeppelin carrying this tower, and there is a series of drawings…
GM Then the first thing it does is to drop a bomb to excavate the site.
RBF It makes a crater, yes.
GM Yes. Now, what I was going to ask you is a philosophical question in a sense – the idea of using destruction in the process of construction –…
GM The idea of using destruction integrally with production in this project.
RBF Young man, in 1927 I wanted to demonstrate a way of doing something. If you know anything about your patents – patent law – you must be able to demonstrate to the patent examiner how you do it. You can’t just say, I will in some way or the other get something done, you must show a way. I wanted to show a way of delivering a 10-deck building, all completed, by a Zeppelin. We had – the Norge had made a trip – the Italian – to the North Pole just as I was writing (this was the year of Lindbergh’s flight). The data on the Graf Zeppelin was not published until another year, when she was about to be built. I had been calculating whether I could really take the weights out of a building to such an extent that it might be air-deliverable. I wanted to be able to deliver in the Arctic, where man had not been able to live; and I wanted to be able to go to an environment where nobody could exist at the time without and environment control; to make an air-delivery so people could immediately go inside it and not have work to do outside. They would not have to do the installation, and freeze to death doing it. So I had finished my calculation of my building and found out what it weighed when the Graf Zeppelin’s data was published, and I found she did have the ability, not only to lift my building, but also to cruise to the North Pole. So I then wanted to show how you would make an installation. Now this is in the ice, and to drop a bomb into ice I don’t think it’s destructive, even mildly. I wanted to demonstrate how you develop a discrete crater, into which you would then lower, and be able to plant like a tree, and go away. This would have easily made what they call a soft landing, like a soft landing on the moon today, if I had used legs – if I’d had it come down on legs. But that would have given me a little more weight; I didn’t want that. I do not consider a bomb destructive per se. It depends where the bomb bombs.
GM Well this is the point I was raising.
RBF The sun is a bomb, and I don’t consider it destructive; our light comes from it. These are mainly words, you see.
GM Do you think we could possibly go on to the subject of the computer and the arts, which is the main field in which we are working – Mr. Sutcliffe, for example, is working with music; I am more interested in sculpture and graphics.
RBF I have quite a number of my students and friends who are engaged in that in various parts of the world, in Japan and America particularly, and I have talked with them about it – and not only the music of course, but also with the visual part. In the Los Angeles area too, a father and two sons, who have been extremely good at it.
ALAN SUTCLIFFE The Whitneys…
RBF The Whitneys, yes, they are very good friends of mine, and I’ve used my platform to let people know about them; they’re moving forward quite rapidly. But its potentials are very, very great of course in producing music or graphics.
AS Yes, I think John Whitney’s film Permutations is one of the new outstanding achievements in this area.
RBF Yes, yes it is.
AS I mean many people have worked in an experimental, but not altogether successful way, but I think that…
RBF Yes. I think John Whitney and I will probably produce something together one of these days; we’ve been talking about it.
GM What would this be, if you do something together?
RBF Well, I have a whole new area of mathematical exploration, and I would employ the insights I’ve gained through mathematics, and the computer would make it quite possible.
GM To produce film?
RBF There’s not very much we could put on the tape which would elucidate, because I’d have to go into my whole mathematical exploration to give you the basics of understanding about size, so I’m just going to say that I have made a number of mathematical discoveries, and I’m quite confident I’ve found the mathematical co-ordinates –co-ordination – that is employed by Nature, and all her chemical associating and dissociating; and it’s all rational, and it becomes a very useful kind of mathematics to evolve music. I was thinking of evolving music really in an omnidirectional manner rather than thinking of it in a linear composition as we think. Notation has been linear, but the music actually is emanating, it’s going in all directions…
GM So you intend yourself to work in the field of computer art soon?
RBF OK … we have. Our brain is a computer, so we’ve been at that a long time,
GM This of course is of great interest to our Society.
RBF We’ve externalized the computer from our brain and it does nothing our brain doesn’t do. And it doesn’t do anything our mind does, but it does what our brain does; and so it can be employed as our brain is, to devolve all kinds of extraordinary compositions.
GM And your interest is mainly computer music then?
RBF My interest is the Universe, old man, not mainly anything. Mainly the Universe!
GM But I mean, if you are actually going to produce…
RBF And by Universe I mean everything.
GM If you are going to produce an output connected with the computer, would it be music or film?
RBF Man has become so specialized that he has to have everything in categories, and if it isn’t in the book he doesn’t want to have it in his university, and I don’t operate that way – I’m a Comprehensivist.
AS Are you thinking that what you might do might be connected with the World Game, which is, as far as I know, your…
RBF I just don’t know what it’s connected with: I’m an explorer.
RBF I don’t have to… Everything is inter-connected – the whole Universe is – so I’ve just said.
GM Yes, this is one of your great contributions, to spread this approach; it’s most helpful.
RBF It all has to do with much more than we know, much more certainly than aesthetically, this – psychologically – the sounds,
the persons in this room, the echoes, are all affecting us, all the time. And particularly where, as I am, incidentally with hearing aids, because the hearing aids are amplifiers, and my kind of deafness has been brought about by great noises; and I’m afraid our young are going to be in great trouble because they’ve turned up their music much too loudly. I thought I was so tough when I was young, as young people think themselves, always. I had a better-than-normal hearing, by the rating, for instance, in the Navy, and I would not put cotton in my ears as other people did with guns and engines and boiler-shop crashing; and I didn’t know that it’s about a 20-year or 30-year attrition. Your nerves get killed one by one, and they die very slowly, and about 30 years later my hearing was going, so a number of these nerves have been killed. But if we have a line that’s called ‘normal hearing’ I would start and have this – these are our frequencies, going this way – I start with the Queen Mary whistle about normal, and from then on I drop
very badly. Then I begin to come back, and cross normal three or four times, but right at the range where more nearly its women voices, or human voices around here, and then I drop off again below the normal. So there’s a sort of a ragged crossing: better than normal, and very deaf. For me to put speech together – this is just where speech occurs – I have to amplify the very poor ones enough to fill in between the ones I do hear. Well, it means then that all they’ve made so far is amplifiers: they’re not like our eye glasses at all; they’re not made for discrete problems. And so everything is amplified, therefore when I’m better than normal it’s amplified even more, so it is roaring, and I get all the echoes from all over the place and it gets all washed together, so it’s an absolutely horrendous noise. A roomful of people speaking at cocktail parties – I wish I could have this put onto a loud speaker so people could hear the kind of things you hear – it’s unbelievable! The doctor said, the human brain is so remarkable, if you will submit yourself to having this awful experience for – it will take about two years, gradually – the human brain is so extraordinary, you begin to pick out and discern what it is you need to hear and it will tend to make you overlook what you don’t want to hear.
GM Of course this is what the eye does, doesn’t it?
RBF So this is what is going on with me, so I am actually able to converse at cocktail parties today; and yet even now it is quite awful, but by concentrating on you I find the brain is doing that, and I’m picking out what you are saying and paying no attention to the rest of this roar. I’m very very aware of hard rooms; the acoustics of rooms make a very great deal of difference to this hearing aids. And so I’m sure that because young people then do feel tough we’re not paying anywhere nearly attention to what the sounds are really doing to us – and yet they are doing things to us, that is the point.
I’m interested in Art, whether it’s visual or sound or so forth, as part of the living environment. And I’ll just give you my definition of environment: to each human being, environment is everything that isn’t me. Environment is the rest of the universe: all the universe that isn’t you; nothing else.
And all the rest is the thing that’s going to affect you all the time.
AS Going back to what you were saying at the beginning about having gone through many years of obscurity, I think it’s interesting that this is parallel with Samuel Beckett who, in a way, is the reason for you being here. I think he also spent many years as an unknown figure, and I believe, also like you, he went through a period of, you might say, silence. You find yourself especially interested in his works – how did this…
RBF I’ve only come to know his work since I was asked to do the theatre.
RBF I met him first with the model of the theatre. I had had, from Francis Warner, Beckett’s very powerfully expressed desires for the theatre. He wanted to go all the way from classical stage through proscenium to arena, and we had the limitation of having to be underground, and couldn’t have a fly tower. He had to have a superior theatre, not a compromise. And we were able to evolve such a theatre. I had a very fine model made by one of the young men in my office. And I presented that – interpreted and explained it – to Beckett in Paris last summer, the first time I ever met him, and I heard that he was not easy to meet, not easy to know. He was both shy and almost deliberately reticent, and I did not hope for a very favorable meeting. So I think it came as a surprise to both Beckett and me that we really liked each other very spontaneously.
He liked the theatre; he didn’t just acquiesce, he was enthusiastic, and because of getting to know the man first, then I’ve become interested in his work. And I don’t have much time just to do what we’re doing here now and so forth in my life, to do all the reading I want to. I would like to be reading much more of Beckett, and I will; and in due course see his plays. We’ll have a little Beckett tonight.
AS Perhaps you could say something about the World Game, which I believe you proposed originally for Expo 67 and it was not accepted – the dome was accepted but the project wasn’t…
RBF It’s going ahead…
AS And I’ve seen work going ahead in Illinois.
RBF St Southern Illinois University now, quite vigorously. They are really back in there and are installing the building, and we’ll play the game. And they’ve already appropriated the money and it is actually charged into computers and so forth. We have a special computer, not in Illinois, but we have wired connections from it… in Massachusetts.
The World Game: I have been playing it for a great many years – since 1927 – and very quickly my Navy experience taught me about War Games and the Navy being ocean, and ocean covering three-quarters of the earth, and in fact embracing the earth, the Navy was inherently World, whereas armies are local. They can maybe move from one locality to another, but they think locally, and the Navy must think World. And so the Navy War Games; War College, where you have the leading experienced officers who seem to be the most given to it simulating various operations around the world – what would happen if you do this; what would happen if you do that. And I saw the whole War Game was being played on a basis of a big working assumption of all great states that there is not enough to go round, assuming the vital statistics the Thomas Malthus had – he was the first economist to receive all the vital statistics around a spherical Earth. Up to this time great empires had been thought of as planar and going to infinity; this was the first closed system, the first total economic data from total closed system, and so Malthus found that man – humanity – seemed to be multiplying itself at a geometrical rate, producing food to support himself only at arithmetical rate. Therefore it was a working assumption that man was born to be a failure; and then right on top of Malthus came Darwin with survival only of the fittest to explain his evolution; and then we have man assuming that there’s nowhere nearly enough ground – survival only of the fittest – and we have the two extremes. The great Powers running the oceans had the most information, were the best informed, the best equipped to defend themselves, and therefore they were the ones who became most fit and most considerate of all the power and the means survive.
We have Karl Marx reading the same data as Darwin and Malthus and agreeing with the premise that there was nowhere nearly enough to go round – somebody’s going to have to die, and the ones who survive will be the fittest. He said it is the workers who understand how to handle the seeds and the chisel and the hammer, and who know how to work the resources of nature, who are the fittest, and the others, the others are parasites, depending on their capabilities. So Marx then had the worker as the fittest and the great Powers had the great Powers as the fittest – all the political considerations are somewhere between them. But I saw in my Navy game that this then was the working assumption of why you had to inventory everything man had discovered in physics and chemistry, mathematics, and be able to produce them into hitting power and mount this enormous complex weight on the floatability of a ship; and to be able then to have your final showdown between Nations on the sea: who is going to control the great lines of supplies interacting all the resources around the earth – because of resources being very unevenly distributed, and each one having its own unique excellence in giving high performance.
So I said – I see that – I was very excited in the Navy to realize that this floatability of the ship, in contradistinction to the fortress on the land, where man felt that the bigger and higher and thicker and heavier the walls the more secure he was – and incidentally, in my early Navy days a fortress was still a very effective device. So man on the land, where 99% of humanity are, thought of bigger and heavier, more inert, as a greater security – and the bigger the bank account, and so forth.
On the sea it was exactly the other way: survival and security was – given a given-size ship, by the displacement principle of Archimedes, two ships of the same size have the same volume whatever their data, whatever the weight of that water is, of that volume, that’s all you can float. So given a certain amount of floatability, whoever had on board within that floatability that which gave the most capability for the same weight would be the one who stayed on top, and the other went to the bottom of the ocean, and it was all over – and he never told any of your secrets that way. In the Navy everything waited for contact, because nothing was more highly classified a secret than how you get more performance per pound, so when it came to the critical moment – the crucial moment – you’d demonstrate greater hitting power even though it was the same weight of material; and you could hit at a little greater distance with greater accuracy. So, the Navy became the breeding ground for doing more with less. Then out of that Navy ‘more with less’ came the airplane – in fact all the designing of the airplane was still done with the nautical technology. It was simply that the naval architecture went into the sky, with stations, the whole game.
So, suddenly, the airplane dramatized how to do more with less; the automobile engine before World War I weighed the same horsepower, delivered horsepower. By the time I was doing my 1927 work, 14 years after World War I, the automobile engine still weighed the same per horsepower – seven pounds – and the airplane engine had gone down to less than one pound. The same reciprocating engine was just demonstrating how you get sevenfold of the performance per pound – this told me that there was absolutely implicit in the science of the Navy, and particularly in the sky, a doing more with less. We went from wire to wire-less; the difference in the weight of this communications system was unbelievable; and I would keep framing material to do other tasks, because it could be that we could do so much more with so little that we might take care of everybody, and then Malthus may be proven wrong; because I saw Malthus had not anticipated refrigeration, and the food that we grow here would never have reached those mouths.
So I think that the working assumption of all the great states is highly bureaucratic (in Government you are not supposed to think, you are supposed to follow the rules – and this is true of all the ideologies) – thinking is just not going on there, and man is going to keep on with this nonsense – but it could be that we could do so much with so little that we could take care of everybody.
The whole raison d’être of the war might readily go and therefore, I said, I would like to play the game of War Games, of simulated moves, in such a way that I go in for a design revolution where you do more with less. You find out that what are the needs of man, what are the trends, what is the resource inventory – we must know the whole thing. We must see how then metals are recaptured and recirculated - recovered - from waste, etc. And I began to study this prodigiously, and began to find by 1927 I was convinced it was actually possible, a feasible matter, to take care of all of humanity; therefore the war would really be obsolete.
So I’ve been making these simulated moves; and in making such simulated moves you also become concerned with questions – as you do with all planning – such as what are the highest priorities? Which one will you make first? What are the contiguous effects? What are the side effects of your action? And this calls for more and more of a memory capability and handling complex – that’s why the computer comes in in such a big way.
At any rate, I’ve been playing this simulated World Game since 1927 very vigorously, and all my work – whether it’s a fog gun, or any of these other items – it has all come out of the simulated playing, where I’ve been operating absolutely comprehensively in terms of Universe and evolution and rates of change, rates of increase of strengths of tensile metals. During the period I’ve been playing, the tensile strength of metals have gone up fantastically, from 60,000 to 350,000 pounds per square inch…
GM Mr Fuller, may we just come in at this point? What you’ve just said is quite new to me, that you’ve been playing this World Game since 1927. I don’t think it’s generally known.
GM May I ask you a specific question? At which point in time has the computer entered your World Game?
RBF I’ve had to play this longhand. I didn’t have the computer…
GM Exactly; but at which point in time, in which year in your development, did you fit the computer into your concept of the World Game?
RBF You must realize that, operating as I have on my own economic capability, the monies and so forth that I’ve had have been very little; I’ve had to buy time, buy time, buy time. When monies have come into my hand it’s really been to buy time: to be sure that my family – my mother, my wife and daughter – are eating so that I could keep at work, and not have to go out and what you call earn a living; I mustn’t divert my interest. So I had to do things longhand. The electric calculator, as something that I could buy, a $1,000 item – I had finally to get that to buy it on time, and it did make possible… I did all the calculations – for instance the spherical trigonometry for the geodesic domes – longhand and I had to buy two years of time to calculate that structure, and no sooner had I finished that calculation than the electric calculator came in.
GM What year are you exactly speaking of just now? Which year?
RBF I bought this time to do that between 1947 and 1949, and the kind of electric calculator that I could buy didn’t come in until the 1950s. No sooner had I finished doing this longhand then the electric calculator was there, and beautiful tables; the tables of the functions of angles which we had had before the World War II were very poor: there were many errors in them. At the time of the Great Depression we had all kinds of Government work projects just to get people going at all; and England, of all things, the British – the English – Navy and the German Navy collaborated in some developments mathematical – working on the seven-place one-second increment functions of angles tables. Then came a parting of the ways with Germany, and the work could not be finished, and the Goering had the… his… Navy… and then the Luftwaffe took it over, and they completed those tables. After World War II was over when the United States in came into Berlin, one of the things they seized there were these tables; they were called the Peters Tables and they finally are computer-refined. In 1951 those tables became available in the electric calculator, and anybody could do what it took me two years; anybody could do it in one hour, so it was really ridiculous. You take the trouble to build your ski-lift, and then suddenly everybody’s got ski-lifts: anybody ought to be able to do a geodesic.
I’m sure the reason geodesics were not employed was that it meant that anybody could see that it might be done was going to have to buy two years, and nobody would buy it. Corporations buy it.
GM Mr. Fuller, as you will know, at a certain point in his life Bertrand Russell announced his belief… am I communicating alright?
RBF Who did?
GM Bertrand Russell.
GM He announced his belief that we should use nuclear weapons against our enemies. Later he completely withdrew from this idea. I’m now going to refer to your ‘Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization’, which I’ve been studying…
GM And I’m going to make some comments which are, to some extent, critical – but anyhow, there’s a kind of climax around page 178, where you say, ‘Industrialization is the first religion that is drastically universal’. You then go into a kind of panegyric of the automobile, and – I don’t know if you remember what is said, because it’s quite a long poem…
RBF No, I don’t. I wrote it in 1940 and I haven’t read it since.
GM Yes, you wrote it in collaboration with the Managing Editor of Fortune, Russell Davenport.
GM Now, if I just remind you briefly:
For Industrialization needed no succour or support
within man’s physical powers to provide.
It needed only precise unveiling,
that its cosmic majesty might
speak silently for itself
To be tuned into by man
through the realistic wavebands
Of scientific non-sensoriality.
In this connection
resolving the broadcast
into the limited sensorial band,
it is to be comprehended
that the automobile industry
is not an industry
apart from other industries
as for instance the ‘watch industry’.
The automobile industry is
up to this minute
developed quantitatively and qualitatively
to its highest contemporary degree.
industry centers around the automobile
as the largest
and most inclusive
per capita consumer producer
mechanical extension of USA man
as of 1920 to 1940.
You continue here, and yet end this part by this:
Fifty million USA-ers
Through this mechanically amplified means
Of the automobile
in dynamic unfoldment
Have empirically acquired good manners.
I won’t quote the whole of this, but throughout you present the automobile as a sort of climax of Industrialization. Now what I’m asking you…
RBF Now my dear Charlie, you’ve missed me, because I’m saying the Industrialization is simply at this phase as you call it – automobile. It is going through the spectrum; it’s in the red phase; and they latch onto it, going red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet; and violet would be called something else. It is manifesting itself in its capability to handle man’s motion, and to move goods from here to there. It… really, it was first… when it was first in watches. It went – this is where the artist, instead of making the end product, making the cabinet, making the chair, and so on, and – with – you can do that with the limited patronage of a King, or a noble or even the middle class. When it’s got to be for everybody, there are not enough artists to make it for everybody, so the artist makes the tools and the tools make the end product. Industrialization is what I’m saying: so instead of the artist making the end products, the artist makes the tools and the tools make the end product, and the tools are powered by inanimate energy. Do you understand what I’m saying?
GM Yes, but…
RBF That’s the only difference.
GM But what I’m saying really is this: here there is a kind of praise of the automobile.
INTERRUPTION: BUCKMINSTER FULLER REQUESTED TO LEAVE FOR ANOTHER INTERVIEW.
RBF I do have to go, that’s right; I’ve got another appointment. Now, you miss me sir, because there was no question about it: the real amplification of Industrialization, from something very minor as a watch, suddenly is amplified into something very large – and as the automobile you could really see it; it was affecting all the people – but then it graduates from the automobile into more, and then graduates to… at that time the automobile as an automobile industry is not just a special kind; it is industry itself. But industry itself is simply at that moment in its automobile stage, but later on there’s another one. I was not in praise of the automobile, but I was simply meaning this is where you now could recognize it. And this is no reversal at all, but you – I’m sorry that…
GM Well, I’m speaking in terms of the revulsion, the present revulsion against the automobile.
GM The present revulsion against the automobile.
RBF The point is, I was not saying it is the automobile; this is industry itself; industry at that moment then that was doing that. That’s all.
RBF The automobile’s been used in a very careless… and it’s had all kinds of fallouts; but it is no longer what I’m talking about. Industrialization is now primarily in electronics; it’s in very much bigger things; it’s in very much bigger communications systems.
GM Thank you very much.
INTERRUPTION: FURTHER REQUEST FROM WAITING INTERVIEWER: CONFUSION OF VOICES: FULLER DEPARTS.