Fuller on Bell

According to archivist Bonnie DeVarco, who did the research for this page, BFI has two original wooden tetrahedra built by Alexander Graham Bell, given to him by members of the Bell family. Fuller's own notes on these artifacts read as follows (someday maybe we'll have some pictures too):

1. This tetrahedral cell was made on Beinn Breah, Nova Scotia, Canada to be used in the construction of Alexander Graham Bell's man-carrying kites. Given with great pleasure to Buckminster Fuller by Helen Pencoast, Alexander Graham Bell's great granddaughter. 3/15/75

2. This box contains a second tetrahedron made by the hands of Alexander Graham Bell for a man-carrying kite and presented to Buckminster Fuller by Bell's great grandson, Grosvenor. December 1977.

An Interview with R. Buckminster Fuller

Q. It seems to me that Bell's tetrahedron, which he developed while working on kites, is very like your geodesic structure?
A. Exactly the same.

Q. When you developed your structures, did you know about the work of Alexander Graham Bell?
A. I did not. I was astonished to learn about it later. It is the way nature behaves, so we both discovered nature. It isn't something you invent. You discover. I had the great advantage of being allowed to look through all of his notes in Washington at the National Geographic [Society]. His grandson had me admitted to his beautiful notebooks and I found where he comes to the actual discovering of it. The thing he was interested in was how to make a stronger airplane wing. He was probably taken with Langley [aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley] and all the others and he was trying to understand how he might do something better. And he comes to discovering omni-triangulation. I call it the octahedron-tetrahedron truss. Then of course he went right on with his kites but I knew absolutely nothing about it until I had discovered the same thing myself.

Of course I knew about Alexander Graham Bell discovering the telephone from my childhood. That was a great childhood event. I was born in 1895 and I remember the great excitement over the telephone. My Boston Suburb home telephone number was "Milton Ten." So Alexander Graham Bell's name was very prominent in my life, but it occurred only in relation to the telephone. I'd been at what I discovered possibly fifteen years before somebody said, "Didn't you know Alexander Graham Bell did it?"

I didn't learn about Bell until after the geodesic dome, and the geodesic dome comes quite a long time after what I call the synergetic mathematics -- the way the spheres of unit radius close-pack. You just take two spheres and they just touch one another 00 that's all. You nest a third one down between the two and you get a triangle. Then you nest another on top and you get a tetrahedron. If now you take two triangular sets of three unit-radius spheres and nest one on top of the other, you will make an octahedron unit. If you finally make two layers of spheres in closest packing, the spheres are the vertexes of the octahedron-tetrahedron truss. Many such closest-packed, unit-radius sphere layers, nested upon one another, produce the vertexes of what is known in physics as the "isotropic vector matrix." I've discovered it is the way atoms are packing. So it seems to be fundamental to nature. Absolutely fundamental to nature.

My first objective structural experimenting occurred in my pre-eyeglass, blurred-vision, 1899 kindergarten. The teacher gave us equilength toothpicks and semidried peas. She told us to make structures -- houses. All the other children, none of whom had eye trouble, put together rectilinear box houses. The peas were strong enough to act as angle-holding gussets. Not having visualized the rectilinearity about me, I used only my tactile sense. My finger muscles found that only the triangle had a natural shape-holding capability. I therefore felt my way into producing an octahedron-tetrahedron truss assembly. I, of course, knew naught of such names.

I can remember the teacher, Miss Williams, asking other teachers to come and look at the strange structure I had produced. Fifty years later I heard from that teacher, who clearly remembered that strange event. Just two years ago her grandniece spoke to me, telling me of her great-aunt's death and of her great-aunt's remembering that 1899 event to the end. It was this experience which undoubtedly started me off at fifteen to look for nature's own structural coordinate system.

Q. When you were a boy, did you think of Bell as a sort of universal genius?
A. I only knew about the telephone. The way I was being educated and the amount of news that really got around in those days was pretty loose, and I didn't have any idea about his being the kind of really great scientist that he is. When I had the privilege once of his notebooks, I just marveled. . . His notebooks are almost like the Leonardo books.

From an interview with Dorothy Harley Eber, on telephone, June 29, 1978 in the Prologue to Genius At Work: Images of Alexander Graham Bell by Dorothy Harley Eber ©1982 Viking Press

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