Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Car: What Was He Thinking?

Bucky Fuller was what we would now call a “futurist,” someone wedded to the myth of progress, with unlimited faith in the power of technology. He was also a highly gifted amateur, never afraid to apply his intuition to a problem, but always taking a short-cut to avoid the difficult road to truly useful innovation, one paved with hard won evidence.

He leapt into any endeavor from the top, determined that his genius could solve problems that plagued ordinary smart people who were working in the trenches building from a solid foundation. Now it does happen, very rarely, that a gifted amateur stumbles on a solution to an important problem. Amateurs indeed contribute much, yet seldom without devoting the time to become thoroughly knowledgeable about the science and technology behind the problem they are trying to solve.

Two examples come to mind. The great physicist Richard Feynman, always determined to derive insight from first principles, delved into evolutionary theory and correctly deduced a number of insights, which he proudly put before the famous evolutionist Steven Jay Gould for comment. Gould noted that he could have learned everything he deduced from a textbook on evolution. So in regard to this subject, Feynman was an amateur, and had over-valued his insight in his attempt to make an end-run around the hard work of learning the trade.

In contrast I would point to the highly respected amateur ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake. She never achieved a bachelor’s degree, but by dint of hard work over many years, she self-educated to become a leading investigator on the subject of the evolution of art, and was admitted to the company of scholars in the field despite her lack of credentials.

As far as I know, Bucky Fuller never invented anything that was particularly useful. His famous geodesic domes were a solution looking for a problem (and he didn’t invent them). They were lightweight and could cover large spans, as long as the foundation was circular. They did find limited use covering a few sports stadiums and exhibit spaces, and for radar installations, temporary shelter, and even a few homes. I was involved in the construction of a geodesic dome birdcage in Oakland, California, an ideal use because it did not involve the difficulties in attaching a weatherproof skin to the framework, and took maximum advantage of the volume enclosed within a spherical shape.

Bucky did however popularize a number of ideas that have implanted themselves in the cultural milieu (what Richard Dawkins would call “memes”). He got deeply involved in the geometry of geodesic solids, which he applied to his domes; his name became closely enough associated with geodesic geometry that when scientists fabricated strong carbon materials exhibiting geodesic geometry, they named the materials “fullerenes”. I think his primary claim to fame is popularizing this branch of mathematics.

In the 1930’s, the technology of both cars and airplanes was advancing rapidly and garnering in inordinate amount of attention. Bucky, in his thirties, got a bee in his bonnet that the world needed a land-sea-air vehicle, which would in his view provide people with unlimited freedom of movement.

Putting aside its utter impracticality if realized and the anti-social Libertarian philosophy underlying it, the idea had no basis in physics. Flight then and now requires rigid wings, but Bucky envisioned inflatable wings, along with “slots” for future jet-power of some sort. It was a Flash Gordon fantasy, an adolescent dream.

Acknowledging the difficulty of resolving the flying and floating aspects of the vehicle, he concentrated on its terrestrial mode. With the help of a kindred spirit, the inventor, aviation pioneer and yacht designer William Starling Burgess, he put his ideas for a car together and over time built three prototypes.

As the photos show, it was innovative in shape, adopting the “streamlining” that was being popularized in the U.S. by the industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss, Otto Kuehler and Raymond Loewy. Its superstructure (including the thin members supporting the extensive glass) was lovingly crafted from wood, no doubt courtesy of yacht-designer Burgess. It had an engine in the rear that drove the front wheels, and was a whopping 19 feet long. It had no rear windows and no rear-view mirrors.

For reasons only known to Bucky’s unconscious, he decided that rear-wheel steering was a good idea. Anyone who has handled a cart or vehicle with rear steering, or tried to back a car, knows its fatal defect: any steering error is magnified in a runaway feedback cycle. Rear steering cannot be made self-correcting, as can front steering (with appropriate camber and toe-in). The only vehicles made with rear steering are fork-lifts and street-sweepers, which are operated at low speeds and need to make sharp turns.

Somehow or other, a few highly skilled people learned how to drive the Dymaxion car at moderate speeds. On an infamous occasion in 1933, Francis Turner, a famous race driver who had learned to operate the Dymaxion car, was driving aviation pioneer William Sempill and the French Air Minister Charles Dollfuss to a rendezvous with the Graf Zeppelin when a Chicago official crowded the car trying to get a close look. Turner sped up to 70 mph to evade the rubbernecker.

The official’s car accidentally bumped into the rear of the Dymaxion, causing Turner to lose control of the steering. The car entered its fatal feedback cycle, turning sideways and rolling over, killing Turner and seriously injuring Sempill. Astonishingly, the court did not find the design of the car to be a factor in the crash. If something like this happened today, Fuller would be in prison.

Not only did Fuller promote a fundamentally deadly design, he hyped its capabilities, claiming that its weight was low, that it got very high gas mileage, and that it could go over 100 mph, all of which were untrue.

To get a more in-depth account of what it is like to drive a Dymaxion car, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1yxFDvqALI or http://www.cartalk.com/blogs/jamie-lincoln-kitman/test-drives-dymaxion-car

Here are a few quotes from the latter source:

“With the steering’s self-centering action non-existent and the epic amounts of tiller-spinning still required, crowned roads, bumps and potholes can present life-threatening challenges.”

“…no one in his or her right mind would ever venture above 45 miles per hour because of the lousy handling…”

“So this is the stuff that some automotive legends are made of – a wacky idea, a shameless promoter’s dream and a credulous press, excited to herald the coming of a wonderful new future.”

“Shameless promoter” and “living in an alternative reality” are good ways to describe Fuller (and Donald Trump), yet he remains a fascinating character, and his lectures were utterly riveting to this impressionable college student. Building the geodesic birdcage in Oakland, California was a highlight of my life.

Bucky acted out the same dreams I dreamed, and perhaps I am chastising myself for being unrealistic. I admit that I am being unfair to Bucky: he was a man of his time –  and of mine. And compared to the devastation left in Mr. Trump’s wake, contributing to one death is a small crime indeed. The time was out of joint, dislocated by the myth of progress that still enthralls us.

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