Buckminster Fuller and a slight case of the not-really-invented-here syndrome

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the BBC Radio 4 show Great Lives, in which I talked about the life of Buckminster Fuller. A listener, Ron Bird, wrote in afterwards to say that contrary to general belief and our claims on air, Bucky had not invented the geodesic dome. Here is what he said:

'While I appreciate the energy Buckminster Fuller gave to design, the one thing he is not responsible for is the invention of the geodesic dome, though he did perfect it, popularise it, patent it, and invent the name!

The honour of being the first to design a geodesic structure goes to Dr. Walter Bauersfeld chief designer at the Carl Zeiss Optical Works in Jena in 1922 at the time called ‘The Wonder of Jena’ I enclose a copy of its photograph. This structure formed the shell of the Zeiss Planetarium. 25 more were built including one in Chicago in 1930, this became the shell of the first US planetarium, the Alder Planetarium.

Indeed Carl Zeiss and Dyckerhoff & Widmann the firm who build the dome received the US Edward Longstreth Medal in 1938 for the dome construction. All patents and recordings were lost in WW2 when both the Russian and US armies occupied Jena in 1945. Dr. Bauersfeld was among a group of fortunate people brought to West Germany by US troops. Though it is said the the Zeiss company did not patent it as it had a policy that basic findings should be made available to the whole scientific world.'

Ron attached a photograph of the Zeiss dome (below), and it is immediately clear that this is indeed a geodesic dome, with the same great circle geometry as Bucky's domes – the same alternating pattern of pentagons and hexagons that can be seen in a football. I was aware in general terms that Zeiss had done 'something similar' but I did not realize until I saw this photograph that it was actually identical. Strictly speaking, Bucky should not have been able to patent the dome at all as it was in the public domain, but these are obviously the spoils of war and ignorance.

So where does that leave our appreciation of Bucky? I tend to agree with Ron, who closed by saying that while this in no way detracts from the greatness of Buckminster Fuller, credit should indeed be given where it is due.