From the Annals of the Transcendentalists

Probably “annals” is a less attractive term than either “archives” or “chronicles” and indeed I’m planning to focus on the inventor of “chronofile” for his “ship’s log” or “profile”. A question I’m addressing: “Was Buckminster Fuller a Cold Warrior?”

Short answer: yes. In 2018, when we’re reliving a Cold War in a newer key, that of cyber-warfare, that’s easy to believe. We know funding is tough to come by, if not already earmarked for the nation’s defense. In his Shelter Magazine, as well as in 4D Timelock, civilian tech was a big focus. That was all pre dome. The hexagonal house chapter (it hung on a pillar) came before the geodesic dome patent.

Is “cold war” a bad thing? Critical Path opens with an indirect homage to Nietzsche, as Twilight of the World’s Power Structures is not about “good and bad”. Grunch of Giants does seem more into vilification, yet the target is, cleverly, the Corporate Person. Aside from Thom Hartmann in his groundbreaking Unequal Protection, few cite Fuller for making corporate personhood a target. I’m sure Ralph Nader came up with that idea on his own (I was working with him, as a minion, and vouch for his ability to think for himself).

Actually, there’s a Speculative Prehistory preamble in Critical Path which purports to forecast a day when humans learn to breath underwater and to “teleport” themselves to distant planets, along with their dolphin and whale friends. That’s pure science fiction of course, but he mirrors it by reflecting it on a distant past, saying when you aim the arrow, it’s all in how one pulls back on the string. Fuller was good at science fiction. He doesn’t predict yet a third species forking off from the landlubbers, living on Mars. That’s what I’ve been proposing, in my Martian Math summer camps.

Anyway, back to the Cold War: how was Fuller going to get funding for his geodesic domes if not from the US military? Answer: corporate America was actually keen to showcase signature domes and both Ford and Union Tank Car got in on the act, and many others. However, the military was faced with wanting better defenses, having newly renamed itself to the Department of Defense. The hot war was over, and a new colder war would take its place, a “proxy war” as it was known. Capitalism’s Invisible Army was taking over, trying to globalize American values while it had a chance.

What excited Russian premier Khrushchev was the traveling geodesic dome that appeared at the Kabul Expo. The dome re-appeared on a much larger scale in Montreal, for the 1967 Expo. The New York Expo had featured an iconic globe, but it was the latitude versus longitude construction, not the geodesic one. Fuller was advertising his American initiative, while at the same time playing with World Game ideas, very globalist in flavor. Was America aiming for world domination?

Behind the scenes, the Pentagon was funneling funds to Fuller’s companies in connection with the DEW line, the Defense Early Warning system of radars across Canada. These domes, which protected the radars inside, had a more random-looking skeleton, as it turned out a “perfect” grid set up too much resonance on the radar itself, interfering with seeing faraway objects. Pure high frequency icosahedrons resulted in myopia.

The “small world” part of this story involves H. S. M. “Donald” Coxeter, the great geometer, a Canadian, to whom Fuller eventually dedicated his Synergetics.

Donald’s son was friends with the son of the artist M.C. Escher, likewise Canadian. These two were thinking to enter the same DEW line business based on designs reminiscent of Fuller’s, but were informed Fuller had something of a monopoly thanks to his US geodesic dome patent.

How could one patent a geometry found in nature? How could these designs not be open source? Donald was enraged that his son’s prospects were being infringed upon by some upstart imperialist American who thought he could colonize geometry itself, as well as Canada.

Sometime later, Dr. Arthur Loeb, one of Fuller’s collaborators and a quintessential academic, as well as Renaissance man, wanted to bring Fuller’s Synergetics together with M.C. Escher’s art works. By this time, a lot of the initial mistrust had subsided and this collaboration scenario appeared likely. However the principals were all getting on in years by this time. Escher died before Synergetics could be published. Loeb himself wrote a preamble, more strait-laced crystallography and not in the philosophical language Fuller invented.

We should talk about Fuller’s relationship with the Russians. As an early jet setter, he got around, circling the world some forty two times if I’m not mistaken. He recognized two major ideologies at work behind the Cold War, both forms of Social Darwinism, but disagreeing on which social stratum or “class” was most fit to survive. Fuller himself was not a big believer in races or classes, seeing these as social constructs we could deconstruct if we wanted.

He thought the Russians were intent upon achieving a more secure planet (the Mir concept, which is bound up with a lot of aerospace memes, such as Soyuz-Apollo). At one of the summits he attended, with Russians present, the key topic was the nuclear winter that would follow in the aftermath of a nuclear missiles exchange. Climate change was becoming more of an agenda item. Why wreck the climate of Spaceship Earth versus make the place more livable?

Fuller himself mocked over-specializing humans for descending into a more ape-like state. He argued we were trending towards a Planet of the Apes like scenario (“we are devo”), or Mad Max, unless we could reboot in some metaphysical sense. Perhaps we would. He died feeling hopeful about the prospects for humanity, and with a lot of healthy respect for the young people gradually rising through the ranks.

Regarding World Game, Fuller’s number one priority was to continue with the project of global electrification, given a big boost by FDR’s administration and the Rural Electrification Project. He encouraged world game players to tune in the world’s electrical grids and think about them cogently. His approach was influential and many of his students around the world are focused on today’s HVDC lines (high voltage long distance global circuit connectors).

Speaking of “mocking” the over-specialized, no account of Fuller as Cold Warrior would be complete without some mention of his collaborator E. J. Applewhite, a career CIA guy who thought Fuller made more sense than most.

In his retirement, Applewhite committed himself to helping Fuller get Synergetics published by Macmillan, an uphill battle he wrote a book about (Cosmic Fishing). Applewhite was initially rather distrustful of yours truly, as I was caught up in this est business, and sometimes he’d mock me in various ways. We got to know each other better over time, and became friendly. To be fair, I didn’t take him seriously at first either, in that I thought he might be purely fictional.

Edgar knew I was also friends with Kenneth Snelson, the tensegrity artist, and this helped as an ice breaker. Applewhite and Snelson got together for a cordial meetup.

The Kenneth Snelson versus Bucky Fuller rivalry is another story, which I have focused on elsewhere. I may write another Medium story about that.

When it comes to the Cold War though, I have to think Fuller was all about keeping wars cold. He thought of Synergetics as a kind of metaphorical cryogenics. A serious, cool headed approach to world affairs would allow us to take full advantage of our technology without depriving people of their freedoms.

Whether we call these dreams for the future “American values” or not depends on what we believe in. Fuller was anticipating a continued drop in nationalist sentiments, thanks to telecommunications, but patriotism (love for one’s country) may be less literal for some people. A whole planet is not too big to feel patriotic about.

Written by

Lots online.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store