American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Interview with Author J. Baldwin

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These excerpts were taken directly from Simon & Goodman's interview transcripts, and were edited lightly for clarity. The notation [question] indicates that a question was asked. However, the transcripts most often did not contain the actual question, so the filmmakers could assess the usability of the interview segment.


Bucky called the construction industry the craft and graft industry. And he regarded it, as he should have, as an 18th century craft skill that was inappropriate in an industrial society. And he thought that houses should be mass produced on mass production machinery. But he objected to the idea of mobile homes because they had to go on highways, had to be made to extrude through tunnels and extrude through bridges. And were undesirable and inefficient shapes.

So he thought that houses should be round because it gives you the most house for the least materials. And he thought that since...I forget how many billion people every night are not being sheltered properly for good health, let alone own a house, on the earth at any one time...I can't remember the number, but it's horrendous. And he thought the only hope to house people was to house them in housing that took advantage of the very high production of a large factory, preferably an automated factory, because he didn't think that people should be used as machines.

And he thought that houses should not require maintenance, that they shouldn't be biodegradable, which virtually all houses are right now. It is undesirable. And so he thought to make them of materials that would not degrade. And he also thought that the people who lived in the house should not have to spend their life taking care of the house, fixing roof to putting on a new roof and all that kind...painting it. So he made them so they did not require paint, that they didn't require anything but a quick swipe of a wet rag once in a while and all the corners in the houses he designed were round, big radius corners that you could just swab out in a few minutes. He thought that women especially should not be enslaved by their house which they certainly are today.


Yes, he thought that the only way you could afford to mass produce houses, was to mass produce them of course in factories, and that meant you'd have to mass ship them. And that meant they had to squash down real small for shipping by air. He intended to ship them by air. So the weight became important and also he was very much against the idea of wasting any materials, and he thought the high efficiency housing, the way to make a cheap high efficiency house, or inexpensive...excuse me, he did not like the word cheap...inexpensive high efficiency house was to use materials efficiently and not waste them, and that would mean more people could get houses from the same amount of material and, considering there's a finite amount of material on the earth, you know, he thought the only way we were going to have social justice and house everybody at a good standard, was to use the materials absolutely as efficiently as possible. Which meant aircraft technology. And it still does.


Bucky had determined that aircraft technology was the most efficient way to use materials, because aircraft have to be efficient or they won't fly, or you get shot down by the enemy or whatever. So he naturally went to aircraft companies. And then he had the other idea...when WWII was over there were going to be thousands of aircraft workers, highly skilled aircraft workers with all this amazing machinery, with nothing to do and they'd all be fired. So he thought he'd put that two together. He would make houses in an airplane factory. And he approached Beech Aircraft which is in Wichita. And they came to an agreement to make up the tooling, the dies and so on to stamp out the parts to make the house. And the house originally was intended to house Air Force officers all around the world at different air bases, and they were going to be air shipped. And they...this whole house came in a container 16 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, the whole thing, except for the couches, and the stove and fridge.


This Wichita house weighs 3 tons. And a typical American house, not a brick house, but a typical American wooden house weighs about 150 tons. And to ship it you have to have trucks, you have to have the highways and the bridges and everything. Fuller thought, by having air shippable houses..he had in mind starting what he called the Global Dwelling Service.

And the idea was that you would be able to lease the house in the same way that you lease your telephone from Ma Bell. And the telephone company originally had the idea that they weren't going to sell phones because when you sell something that one that's cheapest and tackiest but still works, is the one that wins. And that degrades the performance of the system. And that's why Alexander Graham Bell said we should not sell telephones, we should sell communications service.

So Fuller said we should sell housing service, shelter service. And therefore a person who could normally not afford a high tech machine-made house, even though it was far cheaper than a handmade house, would be able to afford it by essentially leasing it in the same way that you lease all the phone wires and the satellite dishes and everything that the phone company uses to make your phone call go to where it's supposed to go. You couldn't possibly afford to buy all that stuff. So you're going to lease it as a system. And then of course...and this was considered extraordinary in the 40s, the house was intended to be self air conditioning without machinery, solar heated, and so forth. And it was tornado resistant, the whole top was intended to open like a big valve and let the pressure out when a tornado went nearby. And in fact a tornado did go nearby, right past the window here, and didn't damage the house. And then there was a nearby tornado just last year that wrecked the nearest town 3 miles away and didn't hurt the house.


This Wichita house is a prototype. The parts were made to make 2 prototypes. And all prototypes, the reason you have prototypes, is to try it out. And when they build a prototype aircraft they hire a test pilot, and the test pilot is very well paid and he wears a parachute. Even today with the computer simulations. This was intended to be tried and tested. And the stockholders, unfortunately said, start making them, you don't need any more trials.

And there's an old adage that says sooner or later you have to shoot the engineer or nothing ever gets built. They accused Bucky of this but this in fact was not true. This Wichita house does need more work to correct some of its flaws. The heating and cooling system didn't work properly, the way he thought it would. Needs to be modified ...and redesigned. And the stockholders made such a big fuss. They said, hey, we gave you our money, you start making houses.

And there was big publicity. It was in the Wall Street Journal almost every day. And he had 35,000 people send in checks and said I want one of these things. And Fuller just kept saying, we've got to build one more round of prototypes. And it finally came down to a really nasty internecine fight between the president of the company, and his personal life was dragged into it. The stockholders tried to get his wife to be against him, to upset him so badly that he'd back off. And he stood his ground. And the company went bankrupt. And he also had some problems with the unions. The aircraft union, the machinists' unions that make the aircraft, of course, were greatly very in favor of it.

But the construction industry and the realty people were very much not in favor of it. And particularly the building trades, the plumbers and electricians were upset, to say the least. Because the house came all wired, plumbed.


The house is made mainly in using metal in tension. And metal is much more efficient in tension than it is in compression. Compression is like when you pile bricks. Tension is like when you stretch a wire. You notice you don't see any brick suspension bridges. They're made of wires.

And this house has a lot of wire in it...cable, rods, very thin skin, stretched tight. And that's why it's so light and so strong. While the bathroom was to be stamped out of 4 pieces of aluminum. In fact it was a Dymaxion bathroom. The only remaining one that we know of is in this house. And it was designed to be very light so that 2 men could install it in an hour. And it would cost a fraction of a present day bathroom in a house today...a tile bath is a noticeable proportion of the price of a house and Fuller thought that was total nonsense.

And also bathrooms are very hard to clean. A tile bath is an awful thing to clean. His bathroom was all stamped out of smooth sheet metal, with no corners, no creases, nowhere to catch germs. It had a ventilating system that pulled the fumes and the steam downward to the floor and sucked it out of the room. The sink was made so it couldn't squirt water on you while you were using it, splashing on it. And the kids who lived in this house said that having water balloon fights and so on in the bathroom, even though it was tiny, was terrific because they couldn't hurt anything. The entire room drained so you could clean it just by turning a hose on it.


When he was alive, Bucky...everybody called Bucky Fuller, Bucky Fuller. His wife didn't. She called him Richard, and with a rather...a kind of hauteur to her tone of voice. University presidents introduced him as Dr. Fuller. But he was Bucky Fuller to everybody else, and he responded to being called Bucky, be it a scurvy hippie or a diplomat from a big country. And it made sense and it went with him. And he was known as kind of a eccentric...he was eccentric in certain ways. He claimed he was no more intelligent than anybody else. And if pushed he'd say I'm just a humble machinist, and he'd whip out his machinist's card.

Bucky had the idea that the Dymaxion House was intended to not have umbilicals, that it didn't need pipes leading to it, or from it, or wires. It was going to make its own electricity and use solar energy and so forth, and the only remaining would handle its own water and sewage. The only umbilical that was hard to get rid of then, was the road, and so he decided he would invent a transportation device that would fly, or drive as required, and he called it the omni-directional plummeting device.

Or omni-directional transport and since it was impractical at the time, and probably still is for a lot of reasons, to make a flying device that everybody...can you imagine at the Rose Bowl game, having everybody flying away from it in the parking lot? He decided to make a car that was actually sort of...that could have, could fly, at some future time using jets, but he would test his transportation device taxi-ing qualities he called it, in other words it was a car, and cars in 1932 looked like a Model A Ford and they were very inefficient, and noisy, and a lot of...not the faintest hint of streamlining.

And Bucky, and several other inventors such as Bill Stout that he was friends with, decided to make streamlined automobiles and Bucky actually went so far as to hire an aerodynamicist, and they really went to town and designed the car to get good mileage. And it used a Ford V8 engine, a flat head V8 engine from the '32 Ford, '33 Ford, which is 85 horsepower. In a Ford it...on a good day it got 16, 17 miles to the gallon, and in his car, which was 21 feet long, and would seat 11 people, it got 30 miles to the gallon cruising hard. And the Ford's top speed was maybe 85, 90, and the Dymaxion could easily do 120, and actually Bucky told me it could go a long faster than that, but he couldn't get a gear ratio made for it...tall enough to make it go faster. But it was capable of going much faster.


Okay, he chose to put it on three wheels because that's all the wheels anybody needs to stand up, just like a stool only needs three legs, and...I mean you could do it with two wheels, but then you'd have to have retractable landing gear. So it had three wheels, and he decided to have the one wheel in the back for stability reasons. Three wheeled cars with one wheel in the front like a tricycle tip over real easy, as you might remember from your tricycle days, and the car had front wheel drive, and a rear engine.

And it steered from the back like a bird or a fish he said, the way it had a rudder in other words on the ground, and that was one of its problems. Anyway the tapered shape lent itself to getting good gas mileage. And not only did it taper to a point in the back, but he put the hot air from the engine and the exhaust into that area behind the car, and the expanding hot air helped to kill off the vacuum behind the car that holds the car's speed down. That's one of the reasons it was so fast.

But steering it from the back, he could go into a parking space frontwards in one pass. He was less anxious to talk about how you got out of the parking space. You had to back out of it into traffic, which is hard to do. On the other hand the car could U-turn in its own length, which meant that you could put the left front wheel on a manhole cover and U-turn head the other way, without that wheel ever leaving the manhole cover. I actually...I've seen movies of him doing that. He liked to show that off...the car had three chassis's, each sprung separately, and it was claimed that you could easily sit at the lounge at the back of the car and sip your wine as he crossed a plowed field crossways, and not spill your wine, and I heard a lot of people who rode with him and said that was true, the best riding car anybody's ever made, even today.

Its handling properties left something to be desired, and he knew that, and realized that, and in subsequent designs that were never made had front wheel steering, and rear wheel for parking only. The cars were very aircrafty, they were very light, built very light weight, they were built by a yacht designer, an aircraft engineer, Starling Burgess, who also built America's Cup yacht race defenders, successful ones.

There were three Dymaxions built, the first was extremely light, a radically light car. It had Plexiglas windows, early form of Plexiglas which turned out...the wipers couldn't wipe the Plexiglas without scratching it. So it subsequently got a rather ugly, faceted windshield, which is rather geodesic facet, and even...the first one had just a snorkel in the front that drew air in for cooling, and for cooling the cabin it drew it over a bucket of dry ice that you replenished from time to time to keep cool, an air conditioner. It was the first car that had a radio, as standard equipment.

And Bucky saved in his files, the tickets that he got driving the car. He was timed...they had to telephone ahead, police didn't have radios then that...they timed him between towns, like 110 miles an hour, these unheard of speeds. And he kept the speeding tickets proudly, in his files, stapled together, and they...some of them were pretty outrageous. It's a wonder he didn't go to jail.


It was the first car to...not the first car to be streamlined, there was a car called the Rumpler that looked like a streamlined donkey cart, and some other cars were aerodynamic attempts, but this was the first time anybody had thought what a ground...a wheeled vehicle would be like, and Fuller started over...he would have even used an airplane engine, he had one on order, but it didn't come in time, it was going to have an airplane engine in it. Air cooled airplane engine, and a very powerful one.

So he rethought the whole thing, the suspension, the front wheel drive for stability. It had enormous interior space compared to its contemporaries, even today, a car that seats 11 would be considered extraordinary. It got good mileage. He thought there was absolutely no reason why the car shouldn't get good mileage. He thought that cars should be made to drive on rough roads, rather than have to drive...have to build very expensive smooth roads, so it had about the same ground clearance as the jeep, and could be driven at various speeds on really horrible pavement with serene comfort.

It was radical in its day, and it was so utterly radical visually, that he was actually enjoined by the New York Police Department to not drive it in midtown Manhattan, because it literally stopped traffic. He pulled up to Madison Square Garden in the thing once, and it caused a traffic jam that took seven hours to untangle, and the police kind of liked the car, because they could plow through crowds with it without hurting anybody because it was streamlined all around, there was nothing that could hook on people, and no hood that they could fly over, and it could just sort of mow through people, and the police were going to buy a bunch of them, had it been produced.

If it had been produced in quantity, cars today would be very drastically different than what they are, because it was a...even today, by today's standards, his 1933 car would still be considered extremely high performance, and ecologically acceptable even by today's standards, and that's 58 years ago.


What we're trying to do here--we're not trying, we are doing it--is to take this only Dymaxion house, take it apart, number all its parts, and it will be shipped to the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan where it'll be restored, and put on display in their museum. And it's particularly appropriate today because with the Cold War over, there's a lot of defense workers out of work, and there's a very big demand for low cost housing and there are a lot of people that are interested in houses that aren't going to keep deteriorating. And this house...its basic structure has not deteriorated, despite the fact it was abandoned and you know how...if you abandon a house what happens to it. This one, the only damage is to the interior of it, and that was done by raccoons.