Review: Buckminster Fuller Helped Inspire Our Future

The new book Inventor of the Future prefers to show him as a credit hog.


For decades, Buckminster Fuller maintained a reputation as a visionary innovator transforming our approach to everything from auto design to architecture to geometry. He was profiled in Time as early as 1932, and was its cover star in 1964 even before blossoming as a counterculture hero in the late 1960s, with help from fellow multidisciplinary visionary Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog. Fuller became a generation-gap-bridging icon of technology as a means to goals both pragmatic and transcendent.

Fuller always had doubters as well as acolytes; rarely did his design or building ideas work out as he hoped, either as objects or as revolutions in cars or housing (or bathrooms—his interests were wide-ranging). As a public intellectual, his prose and speaking style could be so hermetically convoluted that one editor disbelieved one of his books was even in English. (He was punchy at times, though, as when he wisely noted that losing our industrial infrastructure would be an unspeakable tragedy, but losing all our politicians would likely make us better off.)

In Inventor of the Future, Alec Nevala-Lee deflates Fuller's reputation, portraying him as an often prevaricating credit hog and serial business failure as he strove to create a new housing industry based on lightness and standardization, resulting in his iconic geodesic domes. But his failures and overreaches aren't the whole story. Industries such as personal computing and physical discoveries such as a new form of carbon molecule were indebted to his ideas, even if he was sometimes a bit of a snake oil salesman. By popularizing the importance of ephemeralization—using technology to get more human value with less use of finite resources—his inspiration underlies the best possible tech futures.