October 18

This Day in History

Automotive

Oct 18, 1933:

R. Buckminster Fuller tries to patent his Dymaxion Car

On October 18, 1933, the American philosopher-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller applies for a patent for his Dymaxion Car. The Dymaxion—the word itself was another Fuller invention, a combination of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion"—looked and drove like no vehicle anyone had ever seen. It was a three-wheeled, 20-foot-long, pod-shaped automobile that could carry 11 passengers and travel as fast as 120 miles per hour. It got 30 miles to the gallon, could U-turn in a distance equal to its length and could parallel park just by pivoting its wheels toward the curb and zipping sideways into its parking space. It was stylish, efficient and eccentric and it attracted a great deal of attention: Celebrities wanted to ride in it and rich men wanted to invest in it. But in the same month that Fuller applied for his patent, one of his prototype Dymaxions crashed, killing the driver and alarming investors so much that they withdrew their money from the project.

When Fuller first sketched the Dymaxion Car in 1927, it was a half-car, half-airplane—when it got going fast enough, its wings were supposed to inflate—called the  "4D Transport." In 1932, the sculptor Isamu Naguchi helped the inventor with his final design: a long teardrop-shaped chassis with two wheels in front and a third in back that could lift off the ground. In practice, this didn't turn out to be a great idea: As the vehicle picked up speed (theoretically in preparation for takeoff) and the third wheel bounced off the ground, it became nearly impossible for the driver to control the car. In fact, many people blamed this handling problem for the fatal crash of the prototype car, even though an investigation revealed that a car full of sightseers had actually caused the accident by hurtling into the Dymaxion's lane.

Many elements of the Dymaxion Car's design—its streamlined shape, its fuel efficiency—have inspired later generations of automakers, but Fuller himself was probably best known for another of his inventions: the geodesic dome. Geodesic domes are built using a pattern of self-bracing triangles. As a result, perhaps unlike the Dymaxion Car, they are incredibly strong and stable—in fact, as one historian writes, "they have proved to be the strongest structures ever devised."

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