The Adventures of Buckminster Fuller and the Dymaxion Car: A Book Excerpt

Norman Foster’s Dymaxion Car No. 4 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Buckminster Fuller was a visionary. Though he devoted much of his career to architecture and engineering, he referred to himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist,” a job title just broad enough to cover his six-decade quest to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” That often led to ideas of dubious merit — such as a plan to make New York more temperate by placing Manhattan under a geodesic dome — lending him a screwball reputation that lingers to this day. In You Belong to the Universe, which will be published in April 2016 by Oxford University Press, I argue that Fuller’s crackpot legacy is a travesty. His core principles, such as doing “the most with the least,” are more essential now than ever. So is his knack for bridging far-flung fields like urban planning and environmental science. The time has come to release Fuller from the impractically futuristic designs that made him notorious, and to revive the discipline he called comprehensive anticipatory design science. In this chapter excerpt, I explore one way that might be achieved.

The future of transportation did not proceed according to plan. Touted as the greatest advance since the horse-and-buggy when it rolled out of the factory in 1933, the first car that Buckminster Fuller built burned up in a fire a decade later. A second one got shredded for scrap metal during the Korean War. As for the third of Fuller’s three prototype Dymaxion vehicles, there were rumors that a Wichita Cadillac dealer warehoused it in the ’50s for his private pleasure. The rumors were wrong. In 1968, some Arizona State University engineering students found it parked on a local farm. Repurposed as a makeshift poultry coop, the last vestige of Fuller’s futuristic transport was slowly succumbing to the corrosive effects of rain and chicken poop.

The farm belonged to a man named Theodore Mezes, who’d bought the three-wheeled car for a dollar some decades earlier. The students gave him $3000 and hauled it home, but they couldn’t make it run. So they resold it to Bill Harrah — a casino mogul with a museumful of Duesenbergs and Pierce-Arrows — who had the aluminum shell refurbished and the windows painted over so that people couldn’t see the ruined interior. In Harrah’s collection — later rechristened the National Automobile Museum — the Dymaxion car cruised into automotive history.

And there it might have remained indefinitely, a restored icon of Fuller’s stillborn vision, if a former colleague hadn’t decided to conceive a new one a quarter century after Fuller’s death. The colleague was Sir Norman Foster, architect of Wembley Stadium and the Beijing Airport. As a young man, Foster had collaborated with Fuller on some of Fuller’s final architectural projects — mostly unrealized — and Foster wasn’t shy about using Fuller’s name to add intellectual heft to his subsequent commercial success.

Money was no issue. Foster hired the British racing car restorers Crosthwaite & Gardiner, and had the original Dymaxion shipped on special loan to East Sussex from Reno, Nevada. Construction took two years, more than twice the time that Fuller required to build the original. The back axle and V-8 engine were stripped from a Ford Tudor sedan, the same source as Fuller had used. These were flipped upside-down on the chassis so that the back wheels powered the car from the front end. A third wheel, controlled by steel cables stretching from the steering wheel to a pivot at the back of the automobile, acted as a sort of rudder. Atop the chassis, a zeppelin-shaped body of hand-beaten aluminum was wrapped around an ash-wood frame. To this aerodynamic shell, several attributes from the other two Dymaxion cars were added, most prominently a long stabilizing fin. Adapting the best qualities from Fuller’s three prototypes, Foster’s Dymaxion Car No. 4 is the idealized vehicle that Fuller never had the funding to build: the closest metal can get to the Dymaxion legend. Or is it?

Few people besides Foster have actually driven the Dymaxion No. 4, and even he cautiously clocks less than half the 120 mile-per-hour speed that Fuller boasted his Dymaxion could handle. (While carrying eleven passengers, no less, and with thirty-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency. In other words, the car purportedly could travel at twice the speed of a Ford Tudor on half the fuel, carrying three times the number of people.) The truth is that Fuller’s streamlining is unwieldy in crosswinds, the rear-wheel steering is ropey even on a dry and windless day, and the system of rudder cables is sluggish and unstable. None of this would have surprised Fuller. He refused to let anyone pilot a Dymaxion without special lessons, and injured his own family when a failed steering component caused his car to flip en route to a Harvard reunion. He may have privately been relieved when his company collapsed shortly after the third prototype was completed. “I never discussed it with daddy, but I think the accident turned him away from the car,” Fuller’s daughter Allegra told the design writer Jonathan Glancey in 2011. “I think he thought that if the car did this to his wife and child then maybe it wasn’t the thing to do.”

Foster had no such compunction. His modern Dymaxion faithfully recapitulates Fuller’s unresolved design flaws, an unabashed tribute to Bucky’s genius that perversely enshrines everything wrong with the original vehicles. As Foster confessed to the New York Times in a 2010 interview, the car is “so visually seductive that you want to own it, to have the voluptuous physicality of it in your garage.” In fact, the sheer stylishness of the thing is so mesmerizing that even Fuller himself lost sight of the ideas that made it truly revolutionary, far more than a futuristic mode of transport. Before the Dymaxion car became the Dymaxion car, it was a machine designed to mobilize society, rocketing people away from virtually every assumption about life in the 20th century.

Mezes’s chickens had the right instinct. The iconic object needs to be destroyed for the Dymaxion vision to be restored.

In 1932, Buckminster Fuller made a simple drawing comparing a standard car body to a horse-and-buggy. His picture showed that both vehicles had essentially the same geometry. The hood and passenger compartment of an automobile were two rectangles roughly proportional to a horse with a tall carriage in tow. The car’s grille and windscreen were flatly vertical. Absolutely no consideration was given to airflow.

For the rest of his life, Fuller dwelled on this point, persistently bringing it up in public lectures and repeatedly impressing it on fawning biographers. Whereas boats and airplanes were streamlined, designed for maximum efficiency, Fuller insisted that the automobile was still saddled with an equestrian past that he singlehandedly sought to overcome with his Dymaxion.

He was deceiving himself. Practically for as long as there have been automobiles, engineers have been obsessed with wind resistance, and determined to diminish it with streamlining.

Racers led the way. Fuller was four years old when Camille Jenatzy’s 1899 Jamais Contente — essentially a four-wheel rocket with a man seated on top — became the first land vehicle to travel a mile per minute. Seven years later, Francis and Freelan Stanley more than doubled Jenatzy’s record with a steam-powered car that proved too aerodynamic: Hitting a bump, the dirigible-inspired auto took off and flew one hundred feet before crashing, vividly showing that the aerodynamics of flight and driving are not the same.

Though neither of these vehicles was practical for everyday transport, another racing car did become the prototype for most automobiles from the teens through the thirties. Designed for one of the first long-distance speed contests, the 1909 Prince Henry Benz integrated the streamline form pioneered by Jenatzy into a four-seat touring car. Hood and passenger compartment formed a single continuous line, a major improvement on the modular construction that automakers inherited from the coachbuilding trade. Looking fast even while parked, the so-called torpedo tourer was immensely popular. Only the Ford Model T retained the old angularity for the sake of mass-produced economy. As streamlining became the rage in everything from buildings to fountain pens, even Henry Ford conceded defeat. To recapture his declining market, he launched the streamlined Model A in 1928.

By then the torpedo tourer was technologically passé. As early as 1920, the Hungarian-born Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray was testing ways in which to bring concepts learned from airship research to the road. Wind tunnel tests showed that the aerodynamic ideal for a dirigible was a teardrop shape that guided airflow around the hull with minimal turbulence. Jaray flattened the teardrop to direct air over the top, ensuring that the tires of his cars remained firmly on the road.

Resembling little zeppelins on wheels (with the curved glass passenger compartment on top rather than below), Jaray’s prototypes achieved astonishing results. The standard measure of aerodynamic efficiency is known as coefficient of drag, with lower numbers signifying sleeker shapes. A brick has a drag coefficient of 2.1. A 1920 Model T has a coefficient of 0.80. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron has a coefficient of 0.36. Jaray achieved a coefficient of 0.23. Over the next decade, companies including Audi and Mercedes commissioned prototypes. Requiring complex curves beyond the capacity of conventional manufacturing, none went into production until 1934, when a Czech company called Tatra introduced the luxurious T77. Advertising billed it as “the car of the future.” Several hundred were hand-built.

The same year, Chrysler launched a car with a similar approach to aerodynamics, if not elegance. Touted as “the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile,” the Airflow was designed in a wind tunnel by Chrysler chief engineer Carl Breer, who retained Orville Wright as a consultant. The model was singularly unpopular. Approximately 11,000 Airflows sold in the first year and a total of 53,000 were manufactured before the car was discontinued in 1937. The Airflow was just too radical for mass-appeal: Accustomed to the long hoods of torpedo tourers (which parted air like the bow of a ship), most people found the Airflow’s rounded nose to be insufficiently streamlined in appearance. Breer countered that conventional cars of the period were actually most aerodynamic running in reverse, a claim supported by scientific research, but Chrysler’s competition had a more effective response: In 1936, Ford introduced the Lincoln Zephyr, which integrated a more limited set of aerodynamic principles into a car that looked swift to drivers accustomed to roadable torpedoes.

Styled by the Dutch-American car designer John Tjaarda, the sleek Zephyr easily outpaced the stubby “Airflop”. Nearly 175,000 of them were built. Yet Tjaarda’s impact may actually have been far greater than that. A rounded rear-engine version shown at industry events in the early ’30s might have inspired Ferdinand Porsche’s aerodynamic 1932 Kleinauto — which became the best-selling car in history as the Volkswagen Beetle. Regardless of who influenced whom — and Porsche likely influenced Tjaarda in return — streamlining was well-traveled territory by the time Fuller introduced the Dymaxion in 1933. Practically nobody was designing cars like buggies.

His vehicle was impressively aerodynamic. With a drag coefficient of 0.25, it was comparable to a 21st century Toyota Prius, far superior to the Airflow (drag coefficient 0.50), the Beetle (0.49), the Zephyr (0.45), and even the T77 (0.38, later reduced to 0.33). However Fuller was far from unique in his quest for aerodynamic perfection, and his approach was far from realistic. Compared to the Dymaxion, the Airflow was practically as conservative — and the T77 was practically as manufacturable — as a Ford Model A. The only truly unconventional car to be mass-produced in the pre-war period was the Volkswagen, and that came courtesy of Adolf Hitler’s central planning. Even if Detroit had decided to manufacture the Dymaxion, there’s every reason to believe it would have failed in the marketplace, or been so thoroughly compromised that people would have been better off driving a Zephyr.

One of Fuller’s Dymaxion cars (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But it was never meant to be a car. At various stages, Fuller called it a 4D transportation unit, an omnimedium plummeting device and a zoomobile. One of the earliest sketches, dating from 1927, described it as a “triangular framed auto-airplane with collapsible wings.” The wings were supposed to inflate like a “child’s balloon” as three “liquid air turbines” lifted the teardrop-shaped three-wheeler off the ground.

The notion of a hybrid vehicle was not completely implausible when Fuller began designing his Dymaxion. The aviator Glenn Curtiss exhibited a prototype Autoplane at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition in 1917, and the engineer René Tampier actually got his Avion-Automobile airborne at the 1921 Paris Air Salon. However their technology was conventional: fixed wings powered by spinning propellers. Fuller’s vision called for jet engines to provide instantaneous lift, no runway required.

The requisite materials didn’t yet exist. In the late ’20s there were no alloys strong enough to withstand the heat and compression of jet propulsion (let alone inflatable plastics sturdy enough to support a plane in flight). So Fuller opted to start by building “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device,” as he explained to his biographer Hugh Kenner several decades later. Fuller also told Kenner that he “knew everyone would call it a car.” By the early ’30s, even Fuller himself was doing so, and after his three prototypes were built, he never returned to the omnimedium zoomobile concept.

Yet the reasoning behind his transportation unit was groundbreaking, even more radical than the jet stilts themselves. Fuller was conceiving an alternate way of living. To his biographer Athena Lord, he described that life as the freedom of a wild duck.

The zoomobile was a byproduct of Fuller’s earliest ideas about architecture, which were inspired by his time in the Navy. The sailor “sees everything in motion,” he wrote in a 1944 article for American Neptune. “Sailors constantly exercise their inherent dynamic sensibilities.” For Fuller, this was the natural way of life, intruded upon by landlubbers with their manmade property laws and heavy brick buildings.

For a seaman, like a duck, there was no earthly reason why a home ought to have a permanent fixed address. Fuller envisioned nothing less than an Air Ocean World Town, in which housing could be temporarily docked in any location, transported by Zeppelin. To achieve this, he needed the housing to be modular and self-sufficient, and he required a way for people to get around without roads. Zoomobiles promised complete air-ocean mobility for a global population unconstrained by cities and even national boundaries.

In other words, Fuller was trying to facilitate a self-organizing society, much as he’d observed in natural environments. Naturally inspired — an early premonition of what today gets called biomimesis — his global human ecosystem would allow people to live more harmoniously with nature. Yet his utopia was not a return to some imagined primeval idyll, for he never considered humans to be like other animals. Man is “adaptive in many if not any direction,” he wrote in his 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. “Mind apprehends and comprehends the general principles governing flight and deep sea diving, and man puts on his wings or his lungs, and then takes them off when not using them. The specialist bird is greatly impeded by its wings when trying to walk. The fish cannot come out of the sea and walk upon land, for birds and fish are specialists.”

To foster a human ecosystem in which self-organization would come naturally for Homo faber, Fuller had to extend human capabilities beyond what was technically possible in the 1930s. He needed new materials and techniques to fully decouple us from our primate past.

We should be grateful that he didn’t pull it off. To set billions of people loose in private jets would be an ecological disaster. As Fuller later came to appreciate, there are environmental advantages to cities where resources can easily be shared.

However the practical flaws in Fuller’s plan are trivial compared to the conceptual promise. His world, like ours, was built on political and economic hierarchies with vast control over resources. Through their tremendous leverage, those hierarchies have profoundly altered our environment, increasingly for the worse. Nature can inspire different social structures, self-organizing and universally local. From flocks of ducks to deep-sea fish, we can sample different relationships as the basis of different political and economic systems, no jet stilts required.

Even the simplest organisms can suggest alternatives to current power structures. For instance, slime molds can solve complex engineering problems without a central nervous system: Set a slime mold atop a map of the United States with dabs of food in place of cities and the organism will find an optimal way to spread itself from coast to coast, forming a feeding network closely resembling the layout of our interstate highways. Slime molds achieve this feat through distributed decision-making, in which each cell communicates only with those nearest. The creature uses a form of consensus different from anything ever attempted by a government.

Slime molds can provide a new model for democracy, a novel method of voting that could prevent political gridlock. Imagine an electoral college system in which there were many tiers, such as states, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, households, and individuals. Individual votes would be tallied resulting in a household consensus, households would be tallied resulting in a block consensus, blocks would be tallied resulting in a neighborhood consensus, etcetera. (Like states in the present electoral college, households, neighborhoods and cities with larger populations would have more votes, but all votes for a household, neighborhood or city would be cast as a unit. ) Equivalent to individual cells in a slime mold colony, people would interact most with those closest to them. Their interactions would be intimate and intense, driven by a palpable sense of mutual responsibility. Real discussion would replace mass-media rhetoric. National decisions would emerge through local confluences of interest. Political gridlock is caused by the buildup of factions and breakdown of meaningful communication. Slime molds don’t have that problem. By emulating them — schematically, not biologically — we can be as fortunate.

Slime molds suggest just one opportunity. At the opposite extreme, the global cycling of chemicals such as methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide may provide models for more equitable distribution of wealth and a less volatile world economy.

Maintained by natural feedback loops involving all life on Earth, the methane, nitrogen and carbon cycles optimize the use of global chemical resources. There is no waste; every substance is valuable in the right place. That’s because organisms have co-evolved to exploit one another’s refuse. (The most familiar example is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals.) Humans can likewise cycle resources through reciprocal relationships. A minor example of this — already being tested in some cities — is the installation of industrial computer servers in people’s homes where the machines can provide warmth while keeping cool. These so-called data furnaces simultaneously save the expense of heating for families and air conditioning for cloud service providers. A global online marketplace for needs could facilitate many more such exchanges, making waste into wherewithal, transforming want into wealth. The world economy is vulnerable because of vast and increasing income disparity, reinforced by constraints on exchange which must be channeled through banks, mediated by money. Resource cycling requires no such funnel, and inherently tends toward equilibrium. We might even expect to see the co-evolution of supply and demand between communities, much as happens with communities of bacteria.

With the zoomobile, Fuller pioneered a form of biomimesis that is not reductionist but systemic. Once established, the system is feral, evolutionary, experimental. The results are unpredictable. Ultimately it’s about setting up an environment for the organic development of a different kind of society.

Fuller the sailor was never fixed in his thinking. “I did not set out to design a house that hung from a pole, or to manufacture a new type of automobile,” he informed Robert Marks in The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. At his best, his mind was as free as a zoomobile. “I started with the Universe,” he said. “I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.”

This passage is excerpted from You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, to be published in April by Oxford University Press. The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

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