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….”

An unconventional faculty holds its first meeting

On this day in 1933: Black Mountain College, destined to become one of the most important breeding grounds of American art, literature, music and dance in the 20th century, holds its first faculty meeting.

The college is a Depression-era confluence of the progressive education movement in America and the Bauhaus design school in Germany, carried over by Jewish emigrants exiled by the Nazis.

It is at Black Mountain that composer John Cage will stage the first “happening,” a spontaneous reaction by a group to stimuli; Buckminster Fuller will build his first geodesic dome and choreographer Merce Cunningham will found his dance company. Among the school’s advisers: Albert Einstein and Carl Jung.

Its heyday past, Black Mountain will succumb to financial problems in 1956. Its campus is sold and becomes a boys camp.


Black Mountain: birthplace of the ‘flopahedron’

“By 1948, [Buckminster] Fuller’s geometric investigations had led him to the idea of the geodesic dome — essentially, a series of struts that could support a covering skin. That summer, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College….  Toward the end of his stay, Fuller and a team of students assembled a trial dome out of Venetian-blind slats. Immediately upon being completed, the dome sagged and fell in on itself. (Some of the observers referred to it as a “flopahedron.”) Fuller insisted that this outcome had been intentional — he was, he said, trying to determine the critical point at which the dome would collapse — but no one seems to have believed this….

“The first commercial use of Fuller’s design came in 1953, when the Ford Motor Co. decided to cover the central courtyard of its Rotunda building, in Dearborn….  The structure spanned 93 feet [and]  received a tremendous amount of press, almost all of it positive, with the result that geodesic domes soon became popular for all sorts of purposes. …

“Few of Fuller’s ideas were ever realized…. Even his most successful creation, the geodesic dome, proved to be a dud. In 1994, Stewart Brand, editor of the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and an early, self-described dome ‘propagandist,’ called geodesics a ‘massive, total failure’:

” ‘Domes leaked, always. The angles between the facets could never be sealed successfully. If you gave up and tried to shingle the whole damn thing — dangerous process, ugly result — the nearly horizontal shingles on top still took in water….’

“Among the domes that leaked were Fuller’s own home, in Carbondale, [Ill.] and the structure atop the Ford Rotunda. (When workmen were sent to try to reseal the Rotunda’s dome, they ended up burning down the entire building.)”

— From “Dymaxion Man” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, June 9, 2008