An engineering whodunit at Black Mountain College

“[Buckminster] Fuller’s most prominent invention originated at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. Fuller arrived there in 1948 as a visiting architecture professor with an Airstream trailer full of geometrical models. Under Fuller’s supervision, students first tried to build a structure using venetian blind slats as trusses held in place via tension. It collapsed.

Kenneth Snelson was one of the Black Mountain students mesmerized by Fuller’s blend of design and futurism. Over the winter of 1948–49, Snelson built models whose parts were secured by taut wires, the balance of tension providing structural stability. Snelson showed Fuller his model. By the summer of 1949, the school’s students, guided by Fuller, successfully built a geodesic dome using metal curtain rods purchased at the Woolworth’s in Asheville….

“Fuller began to refer to the engineering principle Snelson had used as ‘tensegrity’ — a clever portmanteau of ‘tension’ and ‘integrity.’ He later patented this design concept just as he did the geodesic dome itself. Snelson’s name appears in neither patent application. (Fuller’s intellectual property claims notwithstanding, Snelson went on to have a successful career as a sculptor. His ‘Needle Tower,’ a 60-foot-tall tensegrity piece, sits in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.)

“Examples of simultaneous invention litter the past. In this case, the truth likely lies somewhere between Fuller’s ready opportunism and Snelson’s years of protestations….”

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