Tensegrity structures and Geodesic Domes are two phrases which were coined by R. Buckminster Fuller. But as I have explored his work, I have discovered that, although he did much important work in both fields, neither one was his invention. The first multi frequency dome was built on the roof of Zeiss Optical in Jena, Germany by Dr. Walter Bauersfeld in 1922. Tensegrity Structures (as defined in the FANTASTIX instruction manual) were first invented by a sculptor named Kenneth Snelson in 1948. Mr. Snelson is living in Greenwich Village of New York City, and he has been writing to me about his side of the story. What follows is a description of the evolution of “tensegrity ” structures in Snelson’s own words*.
“…I read about Joseph Albers’ work at Black Mountain College and turned up there to study with him in the summer of 1948. It was that special time, about which much has been written; with Willem DeKoonig, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Richard Lipppold, Joseph Albers, of course, and also Buckminister Fuller. He was a very dark horse, for nobody had heard of him at that time. I was immediately captured by his discussions about structure, in fact we were all completely fascinated by his guru’s insights about the world, technology, his view of man’s evolution, etc. Through him, but through Albers too, I found myself that summer deciding to be somebody other than a painter, for it was obvious that I had something special going for me in spatial matters.”
Returning to my home in Pendleton, Oregon, from all the exciting people at Black Mountain College was a letdown. What an understatement. I made a number of small wire sculptures which moved. There were weighted with clay and swayed like a spinal column. One change led to another, and I was soon replacing the swivel points on which they moved with thread tension slings instead. Next, since I thought that an element of mystery would be interesting, I removed the weights and instead, substituted additional threads – tension members – which restricted the movement entirely, but which gave birth to this wondrous looking phenomenon: rigid elements (made of wood) which suspended one another in space only by means of (the thread) tension members. This little discovery which I made in Pendleton, Oregon, at 114 N.W. 8th Street in the winter of 1948-49 was the beginning of what you see today at the National galerie.
“Next summer at Black Mountain, I first showed this magical structure to my teacher Buckminister Fuller. He was both amazed and delighted. As a student, I was also delighted. Life had not yet prepared me for the possibility that he would publish it as his own work, which he did. This was 28 years ago, but numbers of. people are under the impression still, that Fuller originated this structure, which, of course, he did not….”
It is my belief that Snelson did invent “tensegrity” structures. Fuller saw them as a beautiful system for creating high efficiency structures since compression members could be short and isolated in a net of long tension members. Thus he adapted them to his geodesic dome system. Snelson argues that “tensegrity” domes can never be rigid. I’m not sure if he’s correct or even if rigidity is necessary. But in his work as a sculptor, Snelson has certainly shown that “tensegrity” has potential as a highly efficient structural system. It is up to us to us to explore this system and find out where it may find utility.
*Taken from an interview in West Germany in 1977.
Publication of this article was suggested by Certified Advanced Rolfer, Michael Wm. Murphy of Palo Alto, California, and it is reprinted with permission from the FANTASTIX Newsletter, which is written and published by Daniel Radin.
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Construction Kits and their purchase, contact The Buckminster Fuller Institute, 1743 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035 / Telephone (213) 837-7710.Who Really Invented Tensegrity