American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map
by Bonnie Goldstein DeVarco

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One of the best "tools" designed by Buckminster Fuller was his Dymaxion(tm) Air-Ocean World Map--The Fuller Projection. He felt an accurate map of the whole earth could be used as a tool for world problem solving, showing accurate global information, such as human migration patterns or the distribution of natural resources at a glance. It could show major trends in world affairs and the shortest air routes between land masses. This type of tool need not reinforce the political boundaries between us but instead demonstrate more useful information for global trend charting.

Map Distortion

Mapmakers agree that all world map projections contain a considerable amount of distortion--either in shape, area, distance or direction. Fuller felt that it must be possible to depict a view of the entire earth without distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land masses and without any breaks in the continental contours, something that can only be done on a globe. But using a globe, you can see only one third of the earth at any one time.

Although there are many types of map projections, the most widely used flat world map for more than 400 years, the Mercator Projection, is a cylindrical projection. It was created by wrapping a "tube" of paper around the globe and transferring data straight from the sphere to a rectangle.

Only the place that the paper touches, along the earth's equator, is rendered on this map with complete accuracy. The farther you go to the north or south, the greater the distortion in size or shape of the continents. For instance, Greenland is three times its normal size and Antarctica is splayed across the full length of the bottom of this map as a huge long piece of land. Even the most popular Robinson Projection, an elliptical map that was officially adopted as National Geographic's standard in 1988 and now used in most schools, still contains a large amount of distortion--with Greenland 60% larger than it really is.

One World Island

With advances in transportation from the sea to sky in the early part of this century, Fuller saw the peoples of the earth becoming a "one-town world." He looked at the shortest distance air routes of the future, and looked at the earth from the top of the north pole outward rather than just from the side. He depicted this view of earth in 1934 with an intuitive drawing of the continents as a "One World Island."

It then took almost a quarter of a century to fine tune the mathematics which could render such a view of earth accurately. While perfecting his "great circle" mapping techniques, which formed the basis for his geodesic dome and were part of his synergetic geometry, Fuller's final, icosahedral version of the map was first published in 1954.

Using the form of an icosahedron, a polyhedron with 20 triangular faces, Fuller was able to accurately depict the whole earth on a flat map with only the tiniest bit of distortion, not even visible to the human eye, distributed among the triangles uniformly. Each edge of the 20 triangles have absolute accuracy, like paper touching the equator in a Mercator map.

This makes Fuller's map the first map in history to depict a true picture of our earth on a flat plane, which can be used flat or folded up into 3-dimensions. Although the oceans in Fuller's map are broken, the triangles themselves can be rearranged into dozens of other useful configurations, depending on what you want to look at.

North and South

Fuller assumed, and rightly so, that the earth was in constant motion. While tipped and spinning around its axis our planet is also hurling through space at the rate of approximately 1000 miles per minute. So why create a map which stops it in its tracks? On a static, two-dimensional world map such as the Mercator or Robinson Projections, north and south are situated at the top and bottom respectively, up and down. The map does not look right except in one position, with north at the top.

But try to draw an arrow to the directions on Fuller's map. North is in the center, east and west run in a circular motion around that central axis of rotation, and south goes out in every direction. You need a series of arrows showing directions, not static places on this map.

Now, turn it around. The map will read this same series of directions no matter what its position. There is no wrong way to look at his map! There is no "upside down." Fuller said "there is no up or down in Universe, only in and out."

Up and Down

Think about it, if you walk "up" a stairway he said you are really walking out toward space, and if you walk down the stairs you are also walking "in" toward the earth. We are standing on a sphere, (qt movie, 4.3mb) held to its surface by the forces of gravity, not a flat world with edges to the north, south, east and west. Fuller designed a tool which helps us to better perceive the rotating sphere on which we reside, a place he liked to call "Spaceship Earth."

The latest generation of Fuller's Dymaxion Map combined state of the art satellite imaging technology with Fuller's unique design in 1995.

New Map Project

Hundreds of cloud-free satellite photographs of the earth were seamlessly mosaic'ed together and combined with the computer algorithms for Fuller's projection to create the map called "Our Spaceship Earth." Because of its technical accuracy, this satellite version of Fuller's Dymaxion Map gives as true a picture of our planet as is possible.

Using any other map projection, even in a satellite picture of our earth, many more inches of land or sea must be added to "fill it out" on the top and the bottom. Not so with the Dymaxion Map. During the next few months the World Game Institute is conducting a vanguard project to take this map to the next step by constructing a new version of the satellite map with 16 times more detail.

It will be the size of a basketball court.