Yesterday I printed out notes of a 1951 MIT conference on housing and national defense that included a keynote by Buckminster Fuller. This document is part of several hundred pages of material I scanned while working at Stanford on the Fuller collection. After realizing last week that I don’t and aren’t likely to have the time necessary to do new basic research, I thought I’d go back and look at some of this stuff. I’ve got a ton of Fuller project-related stuff from all over the place– the Cornell archives, Berkeley, Stanford– that have never been fully exploited.
I’ve long had in the back of my mind the idea of doing an article about dispersal, which was a Cold War idea to make America nuclear attack-proof by breaking up industrial concentrations, and moving people out of cities and into small towns. Its a kind of decentralization and redundancy plan that people later (mistakenly) believe is behind the architexture of the Internet. I discovered it early on in my work on Fuller, and did a conference paper on it at the SHOT conference in Lynn, MA (in 1994? 1995?); it’s also in a couple pages of a piece I published in a science studies collection with the slightly too cute title of “Cultural Babbage.” (But it was blurbed by William Gibson, so I can’t complain too much.) Ever since, it’s remained one of my favorite Cold War fantasies, crazy and unimaginable, and yet also perfectly logical: a window into the essential craziness of the nuclear arms race.
I always knew this was a great subject; and now it turns out someone else has, too. While Googling “Tracy Augur” (a regional planner who was involved in the TVA and very big in dispersal), I came across an editorial that cited an article titled “Sprawl as Strategy: City Planners Face the Bomb,” by Michael Quinn Dudley, a graduate student at the University of Manitoba. The piece won some prize, so it’s probably good; and from the prize citation, it sounds like it makes an argument I’d make.
I’ve always liked working on subjects that no one else really knows about. That’s one reason I wrote about eclipse expeditions. Discovering that someone else has had the good instincts to pursue it felt a bit like finding out that your spouse is a bigamist: who’s THAT, and what are they doing in my chair? I’ve had a couple e-mails with Michael Dudley, and he’s a perfectly affable person; and of course no one can claim a subject as their own, and keep others out of it. But it reminds me that for all its gentility, scholarship is a competitive sport.
But this isn’t quite the first time this has happened with Bucky. Geodesic domes were used in trade fairs in the mid- and late-1950s, and the whole world of trade fairs was a wild one– a kind of fun house mirror reflection of American culture. A couple years later, architectural historian Robert Haddow published “Pavilions of Plenty,” about that world.
Still, dispersal is mainly interesting to me in its relationship to Fuller’s work in the 1950s, and I think there’s plenty to be said about it in that context.
But now that the Fuller papers are at Stanford, the danger of being scooped on some other, much more central part of the Bucky story grows exponentially.