R. Buckminster Fuller Program: Program Notes

JAN 6, 2011

Notes on Bucky Fuller by Annie DiMario.

Nature has to permit it, and if nature permits it, it is natural. There is naught which is unnatural.

Buckminster Fuller, Education Automation, 1962

Buckminster Fuller’s tombstone at Mt. Auburn Cemetery is, like the man himself, a monument of economy and charm. It features a basic engraving of the geodesic dome (Fuller’s most famous design), and advises onlookers to “call me trimtab.” A small rudder used to turn the main rudder on large ships, a trim tab demonstrates how in any large system a seemingly small and individual action can leverage a great impact on the big picture, thereby steering the whole system in new directions. It is thus a fitting label for an individual whose life was devoted to “doing more with less.” The descendent of a long line of progressive thinkers, this self-proclaimed trim tab drew from his observations of the world around him to become one of the most influential 20th-century designers and environmentalists.

Bucky’s ancestors first settled in Massachusetts in 1638, when Lieutenant Thomas Fuller – a seaman like Bucky – sailed to America on leave from the British navy and never returned home. Thomas’ grandson, Timothy, became the first minister ordained in Princeton, Massachusetts; his son, also Timothy, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1817. Timothy’s daughter, Margaret Fuller, was the first woman permitted to use Harvard’s libraries, and is believed by some to have been Nathaniel Hawthorne’s inspiration for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. A prominent transcendentalist, she wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, largely regarded as the first American feminist work. Bucky maintained a lifelong interest in his great-aunt, whose nature-based philosophies were taught to him as a child and would influence him throughout his life. Arthur Fuller, Margaret’s brother and Bucky’s grandfather, served as a minister at the Unitarian Church in Watertown and became one of the area’s leading abolitionists. Killed in battle during the Civil War – the day after he was honorably discharged due to health issues – he was given a state funeral in Boston in 1862 and is referenced in Carl Sandburg’s Life of Lincoln.

Richard Buckminster Fuller, Bucky’s father, was a fourth-generation Harvard graduate who strayed from the traditional family roles of public service in favor of business, becoming a successful importer of teas and leather. Bucky spent his early years in awe of his father, listening with fascination to the tales he brought back from around the world and to the Robin Hood stories he read aloud to his son. Taking on the role of his storybook hero in the woods near his home in Milton, Bucky began to develop what would become a life-long fascination with nature.

Early in his life, Bucky began to put his observations of the world around him to practical use. The Fuller family spent a great deal of time on Bear Island, a small enclave off the coast of Maine where Bucky returned every August until he died. It was here that he first took note of the shapes, the air and the sea that would come to influence him and his work. Decades before nature’s triangular-based structures would inspire Bucky’s geodesic domes, Maine’s coastal jellyfish triggered one of his earliest inventions: an oar which mimicked the sea creature’s movement to cut quickly through water with minimal resistance. The local fishermen taught him the basics of boat construction and fostered his love of the water, which would serve him not only as a designer, but also as a naval officer who would patrol the same shores aboard the U.S.S. Wego during World War I.

As Buckminster Fuller carved his own path as an inventor, architect and environmentalist, he retained a pride in his heritage. When his daughter, Allegra, was born, Bucky put together a detailed genealogical account entitled Record of the Direct Parentage of Allegra Fuller. Decades later, he embarked on a quest to discover more about his naval kinsman, Thomas Fuller. But Bucky’s loyalty to his family displayed itself most evidently through his work. Driven by the humanitarianism that motivated his ancestors, he was determined to find innovative answers to the planet’s most pressing environmental and social problems.

Margaret Fuller’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once advised that “this time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” There is perhaps no fellow New Englander who understood this, who lived and labored for it, better than Bucky Fuller. Like his ancestors, he strove to better the world for those who surrounded him and those who came after him.

By Annie DiMario, a first-year dramaturgy student in the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University

R. Buckminster Fuller Program

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