A Man Ahead Of His Time
Mercer Island Reporter
by Stephen Weigand
June 28, 2001
A self-motivated, self-directed, itinerant researcher/educator. That's one way Robert Kahn described his inspiration and mentor, R. Buckminster Fuller, who died in 1983. He also described him as brilliant, a genius and very spiritual -- a 21st century man with 19th century values living in the 20th century.
A man of many disciplines, Fuller is best known as the inventor of the geodesic dome -- the lightest, strongest and most cost-effective structure ever devised, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute Web site. An inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist, Fuller was a holistic thinker, according to Kahn, a Mercer Island resident. In Fuller's thinking, everything is connected to everything else. "To say that Fuller thought outside of the box is an understatement," Kahn said.
Fuller was an early proponent of renewable energy sources. He said there is no energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance. He originated the term "Spaceship Earth" and patented the first map to show continents on a flat surface without distortion. Fuller was a champion of technology -- with the exception of nuclear, according to Kahn.
"If we're willing to embrace technology, we should be able to make it work for human and environmental values," Kahn said. Born in 1895, Fuller was "fired" twice from Harvard University, once for spending his entire tuition money treating the cast of a musical comedy to dinner, and the second time when he was bored and felt like he was wasting his family's money.
He married Anne Hewlett in 1917; their first daughter died of infantile paralysis and spinal meningitis at the age of 4. After holding various apprentice and management jobs and serving in the Navy during World War I, Fuller felt that he wasn't successful in a career. "Any time he had a conventional career, it failed," Kahn said. Considering himself a failure, Fuller nearly threw himself into Lake Michigan in 1927. But on the lake shore, he had an epiphany. He decided to use himself as a scientific guinea pig to see what one individual could do effectively on behalf of humanity.
"He started to do his own thinking and questioned everything he learned," Kahn said. "He told himself, `You belong to nature, to the universe; you're not a failure; you're a remarkable package of experience."' Fuller emerged from his prior life and became an independent agent who was "accountable to the universe," Kahn said.
In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Fuller was in great demand as a lecturer, circling the globe 57 times to deliver public lectures and interviews. An assistant to Fuller for two years, Kahn will give a lecture about Fuller and answer questions after the matinee performance of "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe" at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle on Sunday, July 1.
Kahn attended Colgate University in Hamilton, New York in the late 1960s. "I was extremely active, politically," he said, demonstrating against the Vietnam War. But Kahn soon became a disaffected activist.
"I was in the market for another way to change the world," Kahn said. And it wasn't going to be with drugs or a spiritual path, he continued. "I found Bucky Fuller." Kahn had read everything Fuller wrote and attended a workshop Fuller held at Southern Illinois University, called the World Game Workshop. It was a place where students from all around the world came together to solve world problems.
Kahn invited Fuller to speak at Colgate in 1973, when Fuller was 78. "He had such a wonderful visit, he asked me to work for him," Kahn said. "It was beyond my wildest expectations." He called it a "Cinderella event," since he didn't have a clue what he would do after school.
Kahn spent two years with Fuller as an research assistant. He was one-third go-fer, one-third archivist and one-third clerical assistant. Kahn left his position as Fuller's research assistant in Philadelphia to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received his doctorate in education from the Program for the Study of the Future at the School of Education. Kahn's dissertation was on "community education for indigenous renewable energy development."
After he earned his doctorate, Kahn went to work as director of information and publications in the Governor's Office of Appropriate Technology for then-governor of California, Jerry Brown.
Then Kahn started a public relations firm with his wife, Cathy, specializing in alternative energy generation and technology. They moved to Mercer Island in 1991 and have three children.
Kahn said his career has been elliptically logical, but very much inspired by Fuller. "At some point Bucky went from a source of admiration to a source of mentorship," Kahn said. "I'm now involved with building the largest wind farm in the world," Kahn said. "One of the things I learned from Bucky is if you're going to be an environmentalist and participate in the world, you need to figure out how technology can work in a sustainable way." Time will tell Fuller's impact on the world. "If people talk about him 100 years from now, it will be because of his synergetic geometry," Kahn said. "It was clearly the most disciplined thing he did. Intellectually, it is his legacy." Fuller wrote a two-volume book called "Synergetics," which Kahn maintained is understood by maybe 200 people in the world. Kahn explained that synergetic geometry is a way of explaining nature, and how nature works using geometry. Synergetics is a disciplined search to describe nature's coordinate system, way beyond any academic system.
But Fuller's lasting contribution, according to Kahn, was as an educator. "It's amazing how unique he was," Kahn said. "There hasn't been anyone like him since."
Copyright 2001 Horvitz Newspapers, Inc.
Buckminster Fuller Institute