In the late 1920s, Fuller unveiled the first of many iterations of a new approach to home design, the Dymaxion house, launching a line of inventions associated with the Dymaxion concept. The term “Dymaxion” was coined by Fuller in collaboration with Waldo Warren, an adman hired by Marshall Field’s in Chicago to help promote a display model of the Dymaxion house. A portmanteau word created by jamming together the words “DYnamic,” “MAXimum,” and “tensION,” it was intended to convey Fuller’s underlying vision of “the largest dividend of human advantage from the least investment of energy and materials …achieved by the over-all employment of scientific and technical means” (or more succinctly, "doing more with less”). Fuller was so taken with the term that he applied it not only to the Dymaxion house but also to the 3-wheeled Dymaxion car (potentially a flying machine as well), the molded plastic Dymaxion bathroom, a unique world map projection known as the Dymaxion map, and the main topic of this essay, the Dymaxion Deployment Unit. He renamed his journal the Dymaxion Chronofile. He advocated, and actually practiced for a couple of years, what he called Dymaxion sleep, a polyphasic sleep schedule that involved taking 30-minute naps whenever he became tired, after approximately six hours, allowing him to function with considerably less sleep than today’s sleep gurus insist upon. He stopped not because of any ill health effects but because he found it put him totally out of phase with the rest of the world.
Fuller’s goal in developing the Dymaxion house was to produce an inexpensive, mass-produced modular dwelling that could be airlifted to its final location in kit form and easily assembled on the spot. The original versions were hexagonal in shape, with a domelike roof and a central supporting mast allowing them to be raised off the ground by one story. The Dymaxion house was ahead of its time - way ahead - in employing photovoltaic cells, wind generators, micro-hydroelectric systems, locally purified water pump, and clean packaging toilets (a feature of the Dymaxion bathroom) in support of off-the-grid living at a time when the virtues of such green innovations were apparent to few besides Fuller.
Only two Dymaxion houses (having by then evolved into circular Dymaxion Dwelling Machines) were actually built, the Barwise (in 1945) and the Danbury (1946). A third, hybrid version, the Wichita House, was assembled by an investor named William Graham from salvaged parts of the two prototypes, which he purchased in 1948, and was occupied by his family for 30 years - although as an accessory to an existing house rather than as a freestanding living unit. In 1990 the house and all the leftover Dymaxion house parts were donated by the Graham family to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which lovingly restored it and placed it on display in 2001. It is well worth a visit but if a stop in the Detroit area is not part of your upcoming travel plans, click here for a virtual tour.
Meanwhile, the Dymaxion Deployment Unit or DDU, a considerably less elaborate version of the Dymaxion house, was created in 1940-41, initially for British military use. The inspiration for these buildings came during a drive through the Illinois countryside, where Fuller became fascinated with the corrugated metal grain bins on the farmsteads that dotted the landscape. Adapting the construction principles exemplified by the Dymaxion house, he designed a structure with circular walls, ten porthole windows, and a dome-like roof, with a downdraft ventilator at the apex to provide natural air conditioning. Unlike the Dymaxion house, the DDU was designed to sit directly on the ground.
Although DDUs were originally intended as prefabricated bombproof shelters, Fuller envisioned multiple other wartime and peacetime uses including as storage space, small workshops, and (in the form of two side-by-side structures) vacation cottages. ("How to be Comfortable though Bombed," read one headline to a feature on the units; "A Shelter in War - A Beach House in Peacetime," read another.) In 1942, the Army Signal Corps commissioned 200 DDUs for use around the world. The Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas City, MO, manufacturer of the silos Fuller so admired, was engaged to produce the units, which sold for $1,250 apiece. Probably 100 or more were built, until production was finally halted by the wartime shortage of steel.
Sometime between 1941 and 1943, some 28 DDUs were installed on circular concrete pads at Camp Evans for use by the Signal Corps’ radar research program. Parts for the AN/TPS3 radar unit, invented by Dr. John Marchetti to fill an urgent need for lightweight, transportable early warning devices by troops recapturing islands in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, were stored in five of the buildings. There is also evidence that DDUs were used as protected areas for workers conducting potentially flammable experiments or handling hazardous materials.
Click here for a remarkable vintage photo of a ceremony behind Building 9020, kept by Loren Stone of Neptune as part of his collection of memorabilia and later donated by his family to InfoAge. The photo was taken on the afternoon of July 18, 1945, just a month before the Japanese surrender, and the occasion was a presentation of the Legion of Merit medal to Captain Charles H. Vollum for his work on artillery fire control radar. The speaker is Col. Jack DeWitt, Commanding Officer of Camp Evans, who just a few months later, as the leader of Project Diana, successfully bounced radar waves off the moon. Several DDUs can be seen, including one directly below a radar tower.
In the 1950s Buckminster Fuller turned his attention to the geodesic dome, a remarkably efficient design that brought him international acclaim on a scale beyond anything he had heretofore achieved. Although his Dymaxion designs generated a fair amount of popular interest in their day, they never became commercially viable. The reasons for this can probably be traced to Fuller himself. To some extent, he regarded the Dymaxion products more as concepts than as commercial ventures. Furthermore, the idea that “the perfect is the enemy to the good” was not part of Fuller’s mindset; he never wanted to sell a product till he had perfected it, and he always seemed to have one more idea for improvement.
Perhaps driven by the demands of wartime and the simplified design, the DDU, unlike the Dymaxion house or the Dymaxion car, was actually built in substantial numbers. Thus, the little cluster of DDUs at Camp Evans may be the best and most extensive surviving example of the Dymaxion phase of Fuller’s work. A shout-out here to Fred Carl, local history buff extraordinaire and founder of the InfoAge Science/History Learning Center - who, when he first acquired a property adjacent to Camp Evans in 1985, had no idea what these odd, yurt-like structures were. As historical research brought new information to light, he steadfastly resisted the Army’s demolition plans and worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to protect Camp Evans and its treasures. Without his heroic efforts, this historic legacy of Fuller’s work might well have been leveled by now.