How Geodesic Domes Work

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Origin and Uses of Geodesic Domes

In 1926, the world's first geodesic dome opened in Jena, Germany, as a planetarium funded by legendary optics manufacturer Zeiss. It features an exterior diameter of 82 feet (25 meters) and is the oldest planetarium on Earth.

The planetarium's construction was the brainchild of Zeiss engineer Walter Bauersfeld, who realized that the building had to be extremely lightweight -- as it was to be placed on the roof of a Zeiss factory -- yet big enough to accommodate a large audience, strong enough to withstand storms and rounded enough to feature a nice projection surface for the planetarium's stars and planets.

To those ends, Bauersfeld decided on a geodesic design. In terms of their interior space, geodesic domes enclose the largest volume of space using the least amount of construction material. In turn, because they require so little with regards to material, they're also extremely lightweight. Finally, the geometric dimensions of the domes also lend them great strength.

The novel Jena building sparked worldwide interest in planetarium construction, and domes became more common. But in the 1950s United States, only a guy nicknamed Bucky could've popularized something as futuristic as geodesic domes.

"Bucky" was Buckminster Fuller, an American engineer who helped spread and commercialize polyhedral constructions throughout the country. It was Fuller who stuck these buildings with the term "geodesic," and he was awarded a U.S. patent for his dome in 1954, even though Bauersfeld unveiled his designs decades earlier.

Fuller took his dome design inspiration from nature. He marveled at the structural uniformity of things like snowflakes, seed pods, flowers and crystals and resolved that humans should emulate those simple, strong, and noticeably spherical arrangements [source: The Futurist]. Thus, he began working in earnest on geodesic domes, which he saw as an economical, efficient way to address the post-World War II housing shortage.

He began construction on his first dome in 1948. That dome immediately failed due to the weak and thin Venetian-blind slats he used. Subsequent (and much more successful) models featured strong, lightweight materials such as aluminum aircraft tubing.

They worked in part thanks to a structural principle that Fuller coined – tensegrity. Tensegrity is a word made of two others -- tensional and integrity -- and refers to to the relationship and balance between tension (tightness or tautness) and compression (a force shortens or squeezes something) in a structure. Although these structures had relatively little mass, their shape allowed them substantial rigidity that supported great weight.

The low quantity of materials necessary for geodesic domes, matched with their durability and good looks, means they've found their way into places all over the world. In Antarctica they've stood for decades and resisted winds of around 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). Domes have also withstood hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires better than rectangle-based structures.

They've been used for military radar systems, churches, auditoriums and also for all sorts of special events in which temporary, inexpensive and strong shelters are needed. On the next page you'll see why the special construction of these domes makes them so useful.