Buckminster Fuller Gives a Lecture About Semantics at San Quentin State Prison (1959)

San Quentin State Prison, Cal­i­for­ni­a’s only male-inmate death row, has a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing con­tained some of the most fear­some mur­der­ers to make head­lines, up to and includ­ing Charles Man­son. But some non-ser­i­al-killing cul­tur­al fig­ures have also passed through it gates: coun­try singer-song­writer Mer­le Hag­gard, for car theft and armed rob­bery in his youth; actor Dan­ny Tre­jo, who did a few years in the six­ties; jazz sax­o­phon­ist Art Pep­per, who served two sen­tences there in that decade; and Neal Cas­sady, the inspi­ra­tion for Dean Mori­ar­ty in Jack Ker­ouac’s On the Road, locked up for mar­i­jua­na pos­ses­sion in 1958. The fol­low­ing year would see the con­struc­tion, up north at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, of the very first full-sphere “con­tin­u­ous ten­sion-dis­con­tin­u­ous com­pres­sion” geo­des­ic dome. What on Earth could link these these two struc­tures, one bru­tal­ly util­i­tar­i­an with a name that spooks even hard­ened out­laws, and the oth­er a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly for­ward-think­ing, utopi­an attempt at archi­tec­tural­ly bring­ing about a bet­ter world?

The con­nec­tion comes in the form of Buck­min­ster Fuller him­self, the archi­tect, inven­tor, writer, and much else besides respon­si­ble for the design of the geo­des­ic dome. (He also invent­ed the Dymax­ion Car, Dymax­ion House, Dymax­ion Map… and the list goes on.) He came to San Quentin that same year, not as an inmate — one imag­ines him as far too busy spin­ning off new the­o­ries or keep­ing the Dymax­ion Chronofile to so much as con­sid­er com­mit­ting a crime — but as a lec­tur­er. Described as “a talk giv­en to inmates on gen­er­al seman­tics,” Fuller’s address, which you can hear above, start­ing around the 20:30 minute mark, takes on an even more gen­er­al breadth of sub­jects than that, includ­ing his own biog­ra­phy and the expe­ri­ences that orig­i­nat­ed the ideas that drove him to live his life as “an exper­i­ment to find what a sin­gle indi­vid­ual can con­tribute to chang­ing the world and ben­e­fit­ing all human­i­ty.” Through that con­cern with human­i­ty, he could relate to pris­on­ers just as well as he could to any­one else. “There are no throw-away resources,” he says at one point, “and no throw-away peo­ple.” At over three hours long, the lec­ture gets into some detail, but if you want a still more thor­ough look into Fuller’s mind, con­sid­er fol­low­ing it up with the 42-hour Every­thing I Know.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Utopi­an Designs: Revis­it the Dymax­ion Car, House, and Map

Every­thing I Know: 42 Hours of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Vision­ary Lec­tures Free Online (1975)

875 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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