The Man Who Would Not Stop Talking | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

The Man Who Would Not Stop Talking

A Fond Look Back at R. Buckminster Fuller, the Relentless Prophet of Progress


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Like many children of the 60s, D.W. Jacobs discovered Buckminster Fuller in college. "I was studying theater at UC-Santa Barbara," Jacobs recalls, "and Fuller spoke there a lot. My brother, who was also studying there, told me, 'You've got to hear this guy talk.' I said, 'I can't--I've got classes, I've got rehearsal.' He said, 'He talks all day. Come by when you can.'"

The inventor and futurist, a faculty member at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was riding high at the time. His books--among them Education Automation, Ideas and Integrities, Utopia or Oblivion, and Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth--were selling well. A huge version of his geodesic dome, measuring 250 feet in diameter and 200 feet high, had been one of the hits of Expo 67 in Montreal, and smaller versions of his most famous invention were popping up around the globe. Along with Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler, Fuller was one of a handful of people noted for their pronouncements about the way things were going to be--or at least could be--in the future. His words spoke directly to an audience that was both excited and anxious about that future. And he never ran out of words.

"I caught part of the beginning of his speech," says Jacobs. "Then I went to class. I came back. He's still talking. I went to dinner. I came back. He's still talking. I went to rehearsal, came back. He's still talking." Late into the night, people packed the classroom, sitting on the floor, standing in the doorways, hanging out the windows, listening to Fuller speak. "This tiny man in a dark gray suit was standing up in front of the room with his eyes closed, just talking. Then he would open his eyes, go to the chalkboard and start writing, and then come back and talk.... Listening to him, you would go, 'I don't get it, I don't get it.' And then 20 minutes later you would find you understood what he was saying."

Fuller died in 1983, but he'll speak again this weekend when Jacobs, a writer and director based in California, opens his one-man show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, at the Mercury Theater, with Ron Campbell in the title role.

Of all the 60s techno-visionaries, those thinkers who saw the future and declared that it worked, Fuller was the most eccentric and for many the most captivating. He was notorious for his rambling, marathon speeches. Using no notes, his movements quick and birdlike, he would dilate for hours on building materials, the geodesic dome, our outmoded view of the universe, and new ways of educating people for the future of what he liked to call "spaceship earth." He had designed a light, easily mass-produced house, developed a three-wheeled car, created his own version of the world map, and invented a way of building using lightweight beams and cables fashioned in a grid of triangles, hexagons, and pentagons. He spoke of domed cities, of colonies on the moon, of a worldwide electrical grid that would distribute power based on the time of day and the season in each part of the world. In at least one case, energized by his ideas and the crowds listening to him, Fuller spoke for 42 hours straight.

While some considered him a visionary, others regarded him as a crank. Hugh Kenner, author of Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller (1973), considers him a little of both--a crank who in time became a visionary. Had Fuller died a half century earlier, Kenner suggests, his earliest writings "would be taken as prime piece[s] of crankery, tied up with the legend of a man who was never really educated, failed in business, and emerged from seclusion with a barely intelligible scheme for saving the world with prefabricated houses."

Fuller endured years of hardship and disappointment, when money was tight and he was haunted by self-doubt. To his dying day he jokingly referred to himself as a "professional failure." Born in 1895 to a comfortable New England family (his great-aunt was Margaret Fuller, the pioneering feminist and social reformer), Fuller was groomed as an educated member of the ruling elite. He attended Milton Academy and went on to Harvard University, where four generations of Fuller men had preceded him. But his family was hardly wealthy, and he had trouble finding a place in the social hierarchy. Friends from Milton snubbed him because he didn't belong to the right clubs.

Worse yet, Harvard's traditional curriculum bored him. He cut classes, working on his own projects or hanging around the stage doors of Boston theaters in hopes of snagging a chorus girl. He wasn't particularly attractive, but he was free with his money, and actresses were drawn to his openness and charm. He befriended Marilyn Miller, a future star of the Ziegfeld Follies, while she was performing in George White's Passing Show of 1912, and when it passed through to New York he followed, skipping his finals and blowing his entire year's allowance on a hotel room and a lavish dinner for Miller and her fellow chorines.

Harvard expelled him, and he returned to his family in disgrace. As a punishment, his parents sent him to Quebec to become an apprentice millwright at a cousin's cotton mill, but the joke was on them: he loved the work, which involved a lot of tinkering with ancient equipment. He flourished in the job and was allowed to return to Harvard, but the students were still snobs and the classes were still boring. He was expelled again, served in the navy during World War I, and after the armistice took a desk job in the New York meat-packing industry.

He married, and his wife, Anne, gave birth to a daughter, Alexandra. He went into business with his father-in-law, James Hewlett, manufacturing and selling a revolutionary new construction material: a light, durable brick made of concrete and straw, with two large vertical holes that could be aligned and filled with concrete to form a bond more durable than mortar. Fuller was made president of the new Stockade Building System. But all was not well: his daughter had been stricken during the influenza pandemic of the late teens; she contracted polio, then spinal meningitis, and after a long period of suffering, she died at age four. Fuller was devastated. "I couldn't help feeling somehow responsible," he wrote years later, "that if she had had a proper environment she would have lived. I began to drink heavily. I also threw myself into my work."

Local unions opposed a building material that threatened to put bricklayers out of work, and it ran afoul of many local zoning laws. But in the economic boom of the 1920s the company expanded quickly, opening five new factories. Fuller moved to Chicago to oversee the Joliet Branch. Unfortunately, Hewlett had to sell a substantial amount of stock to raise capital for the expansion, and he lost control of the company. It was purchased outright by the Celotex Corporation, whose first move was to force out the president. Suddenly Fuller was broke, out of work, and "stranded in Chicago," with a second child who'd just been born. "I was in a mess," he recalled in Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographic Monologue. "I used to wander aimlessly in the city, take long walks around the lake, just drifting about. Finally, I reached a point where I found myself saying, 'Am I an utter failure? If so I'd better get myself out of the way.'"

One cold winter night he wandered down to the lakefront and stared out at the black waters, screwing up his courage to jump in. He thought of his wife and his new child, Allegra. "I said to myself, 'You do not belong to you, therefore you do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You belong to the universe.' I said, 'I'm really going to give the rest of my life to the new young life.' I pledged, both to my daughter who died and to the daughter now born, that I was committing myself to humanity."

Later that night he had a mystical experience. "I was on Michigan Avenue...south of the Chicago River, right across from the Wrigley Building, when suddenly I found myself with my feet not touching the pavement. I found myself in a sort of sparkling kind of sphere....I couldn't believe it. And I heard a voice, such as I had never heard, ever before, saying, 'From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth.' It was after that that I started writing feverishly. I said, 'I think I must write everything down, because I was thinking the truth.'" From that point Fuller resolved to "do my own thinking"; thus began his quest to rethink everything he knew.

He moved his wife and child into a cheap apartment at 739 W. Belmont, and they lived off of a small amount of money from Fuller's mother. For the next two years Fuller spent all his time working out his ideas. He scarcely spoke to anyone, unwilling to say anything that might be untrue. Inspired by Einstein's theories of relativity, he self-published a long essay on life and the universe titled "4D Timelock" (one of the early, cranky writings Kenner was referencing). He began designing a multistory prefabricated house that could be easily mass-produced and transported by zeppelin, but no one would pay him to construct his 4D house, and when he offered the design to the American Institute of Architects free of charge, the Institute turned him down, saying it was "inherently opposed to any peas-in-a-pod reproducible designs."

The design did, however, catch the eye of Marshall Field III, who commissioned Fuller to create a small, single-family home for display in his department store. The PR department at Marshall Field's renamed his design the Dymaxion house, and it was put on display in 1929. Fuller believed it was perfect for the age of mass production and pointed out, "The average weight of a single family dwelling is 150 tons. The Dymaxion house is three tons."

By then Fuller's wife and daughter had temporarily moved in with his mother in Maine, and he had taken a cheap room in Greenwich Village, where he hung out with artists and bohemians, sharing ideas. "Bucky was in a continuous state of dialectic creativity, giving talks in any situation before any kind of audience," remembered the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. "He would talk to me as though to a throng: walking and talking everywhere--over the Brooklyn Bridge, over innumerable cups of coffee. Bucky drank everything--tea, coffee, liquor--with equal gusto and would often be in a stage of wide-awake euphoria for three days straight."

As the decades passed, Fuller began to make his name as an inventor and thinker. In the 30s he developed an aerodynamic, three-wheeled auto; the Dymaxion car earned him a lot of coverage in the national press, though plans for his own automobile company were scuttled after the car was involved in a collision and two occupants of the other car were killed. In the 40s he introduced the Dymaxion world map, which abandoned the traditional Mercator projection and divided the globe into hexagons to provide a more correct view of the world. Through the decades he perfected his geodesic dome, and after a stint at Black Mountain College in North Carolina he began to win a wider audience for his ideas, speaking whenever he had a chance and gathering his lectures into books. The older he got, the more he seemed in sync with the times. Ideas that had seemed like science fiction in the 20s and 30s--prefabricated houses, lightweight building materials--seemed routine by the time D.W. Jacobs heard Fuller speak. At that point, everyone was listening.

"People who wouldn't spend the time of day with each other--military people, peaceniks, businessmen, social dropouts, artists, scientists--people who had no way of talking to each other would all come to hear him talk," remembers Jacobs. "He cut across many borders and disciplines."

Even the theater. In the early 70s, Jacobs worked with a Los Angeles troupe that specialized in 19th-century performance styles: vaudeville, minstrel shows, medicine shows, chautauqua lectures. Fuller, he realized, would have been in his element on the chautauqua circuit, a series of speaking tours that brought people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Fuller's great-aunt Margaret Fuller to the small towns of America to address various moral, intellectual, and religious topics. Like them, Fuller learned how to be both an intellectual and a showman. Remembers Jacobs, "When he spoke he would do a little vaudevillian kind of dance."

That sense informs the show Jacobs brings to town. "My show is very much in the chautauqua spirit of delivering lectures on how we make sense of our lives," he says. It's an abbreviated version of the sort of marathon Jacobs heard in 1968, and its arc manages to include a great deal of Fuller's life story as well as his theories. "Fuller used his life for experiential data and would use examples from his life as symptomatic of the forces of the world. He considered himself the guinea pig for his own personal 50-year experiment." That experiment ended nearly 20 years ago, but through the sheer audacity of his vision, Buckminster Fuller managed to project himself into the future he so vividly imagined.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP-Wide World/Dymaxion House Plan/Architectural Forum 84.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →