BMC #2: Who Needs A Supine Dome?

Nobody really, but its NC history is interesting.

The term caught my attention when a writer friend loaned me an “opinionated” bound article about the history of Black Mountain College where the practice of arts, as in painting, music, theater, literature, and dance, was the central focus of the curriculum. We were both attracted to the legacy of Charles Olson who became rector in 1953; he described the school as a “creative accident.” Olson’s “most important contribution to Black Mountain College was to establish its reputation as a vital center for contemporary writing,” claims Tom Patterson in the North Carolina Literary Review, Vol II, #2, “The Success of its own Accident.” Tom was personally connected to this history because in the early 1960’s, he attended two summer sessions at Camp Rockmont for Boys, on Lake Eden. The site was formerly occupied by Black Mountain College.

In the last post, I promised highlights on well-known persons involved with this progressive school. I can’t describe any as graduates, because each student determined his/her own graduation date, and there were no graduation ceremonies. Or grades. No hurt feelings.

One guest teacher who brought more radical thinking to the campus was inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller who inspired the students with an “improvisational lecture” on synergy (described by Webster as combined or cooperative force). From a wealthy and well-educated family, Fuller’s progressive mindset was possibly nourished by an aunt associated with the American transcendentalism movement, the study of thoughts to discover realism. Suffice it to say that Buckminster (his preferred moniker was Bucky) thought outside the box. Today he might be called gifted.

Bucky was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1895 and by the age of 12, he had invented a “push-pull” system for propelling a rowboat by use of an inverted umbrella. Perhaps this effort encouraged an interest in design and underlined the importance of becoming knowledgeable about materials used in the sheet metal trade, as he earned a machinist’s certificate. (Ref: Martin Pawley (1991) Buckminster Fuller, NY, Taplinger.)

Conventional education did not hold a sustained interest from this innovator. Wikipedia reports Bucky was expelled from Harvard twice. The first time for getting involved with a vaudeville troupe, and the second time for showing irresponsibility and lack of interest in his studies, although the two charges sound repetitive to me. In between his years of study at college, he worked in Canada in a textile mill and in a meat-packing plant. He later served with the Navy as a shipboard radio operator in WW1. It was at this time that he lost partial hearing. His first handicap was extreme hyperopia requiring thick glasses. He also struggled with a shorter leg requiring a shoe insert, but Uncle Sam took him anyway. In spite of physical shortcomings, he was described by one writer in a Wikipedia article as having a “golden smile and an angelic temperament.” And he must have been high energy to accomplish as much as he did. From scratch. Did he walk to the beat of a different drummer? Genius does. What was his inspiration?

To his credit, Bucky married Anne Hewlett for life. Sadly they lost their oldest daughter to complications from polio and meningitis. He became depressed since he suspected her death related to their damp and drafty environment. As the case with many creative thinkers, he felt pressed to find a solution for others. With his father-in-law, Fuller founded Stockade Building System, lightweight, weatherproof housing, but the company failed in 1927. No longer part of an upper class that was shaken apart by the stockmarket crash, Bucky’s family lived in serious debt. Suicide seemed a good option to his way of thinking.

Bucky later described a walk around Chicago that changed his life. Feeling suspended above ground in a shaft of light, he heard a Voice that told him, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe. Your significance will remain forever, obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experience to the highest advantage of others.” (Ref: Lloyd Steven Sieden (1989) Buckminster Fuller’s Universe: His Life and Work. Basic Books.)

Fuller evidently took this message to heart. He first determined to make himself an example of the transformation of a human living through the gay 90s into the turn of the century and beyond. He saved almost everything he wrote between 1915 to 1983, a paper document pile stacked about 270′ high, including copies of all incoming and outgoing correspondence, now housed at Stanford University.

In the summer of 1948, Buckminster Fuller came to Black Mountain College, a last minute replacement of a Chicago architect. He arrived two weeks into the session but his genius was instantly recognized in his first three-hour lecture. His manner of communicating was unique to him, using unusual compound words like “intransformative,” as well as terms he himself invented, like “ephemeralization” and “tensegrity.” According to Fuller, the words “down” and “up” were a concept of planar direction and should be replaced with “in” and “out” in respect to the center of the earth, which he called “Spaceship Earth.” (Reference: This term is currently used to describe a challenge to scientists today to consider the regeneration of earth’s ecosystems at the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

At the time of his visit to Black Mountain College, Fuller had reached a turning point in his “Dymaxion” inventions intended to help postwar problems with low cost solutions. His study involved “geometry of geodesics, a term that described an arc of inter-crossing great circles on a spherical form. His first application of this geometry, the Dymaxion World Map, received a patent in 1946.”


His most famous invention, the geodesic dome, was a latticework structure used in military radar systems, environmental protest camps, exhibitions, etc. (Including a “Fuller Dome” intended to cover the entire island of Manhattan, but that didn’t happen.) However, on the way to his success, Buckminster Fuller brought his Supine Dome prototype to Black Mountain College in 1948, where the students tried to make his theory a reality. Enthusiastically, “the students measured long strips of [plastic] blinds and computed the tensile strength of each unit. Each strip was coded and the points marked where they would mesh together.” They attempted to erect a dome 48′ in diameter, 23′ high with an area of 1500 sq ft. As predicted by Fuller, the dome collapsed during the project because the materials “weren’t right.” The next summer they used aluminum aircraft tubing and erected the dome. The lesson for the college students was memorable: You succeed when you stop failing. (Ref: http://www.Appalachian History, “The Supine Dome Flops in a NC Field” posted by Dave Tabler, June 6, 2017)

Many successes belonged to Buckminster Fuller, even the patent on a hanging storage shelf unit. Less familiar may have been the model for an offshore floating city which resides in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. And one of his Dymaxion houses–described as radically strong with light tensegrity (Fuller’s word)–is permanently displayed at the Henry Ford Museum. He was also recognized as the second World President of Mensa (a group with ridiculously high IQs) from 1974 to 1983.

And that was the year of his death, which was also creative. Bucky sat at the deathbed of his wife of 66 years. Anne was comatose, dying of cancer. On July 1, he said, “She’s squeezing my hand!” He stood up, suffered a heart attack and died an hour later. His wife followed him the next day.

Rest in Peace. May we be blessed with more genius and fewer pompous celebrities.


Copyright February 2019 Georgia Wilson




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