We have gradually been learning how to substitute various inanimate mechanical parts in our total human organic assembly. We have also been learning how to synthesise more and more of the atomic and molecular ingredients of our organic assembly. We have also been learning from the virologists' DNA-RNA about all unique biological-design programming of various biological species. We have also been learning that you and I and "life" are not the physical equipment we use. "Life" itself is entirely metaphysical-a pattern integrity. (Fuller, "Critical Path," 342)
Tensegrity takes us back to 1948 and Black Mountain College where Buckminster Fuller taught and worked with Kenneth Snelson, a young student who came under his spell along with John Cage and many others. Deeply inspired by Fuller, Snelson developed a prototype employing discontinuous compression which Fuller later coined tensegrity. Tensegrity (tensional integrity) was at the heart of Fuller's universe. After some time passed, Fuller ceased to credit Snelson for the prototype, causing a deep rift between the two men for decades. In a letter to R. Motro of the International Journal of Space Studies, Snelson says he has been "deeply troubled that most people who have heard of 'tensegrity' have been led to believe that the structure was a Bucky Fuller invention, which it is not . . ." ("Not in My Lifetime"). It should also be noted that at approximately the same time, David Georges Emmerich, working in France, independently developed the same principles as Snelson's tensegrity, calling his structures "autotendants"-self-tensioning systems (Erickson and Braley, "Tensegrity").
Tensegrity is attractive to researchers from different fields because of its inherent capacity for both stability and flexibility. Depending on the materials used, tensegrities can be very flexible, or they can be completely rigid and quite strong, even while appearing flexible and fragile. This strength makes them suitable in some architectural contexts, where their sparing use of materials makes them economically beneficial. Tensegrity demonstrates ephemeralisation-doing more with less.
In tensegrity theory, all forces can be generalized as pushes or pulls-with all systems making use of both and with the pulls integrating the separative pushes. The importance of the integrative pulls is that as tension components, they need only a fraction of the mass of the compression components. Compression components, on the other hand, can be broken down into sub-components that include both pushes and pulls. Well-designed tensegrities can take substantial structural damage before collapsing because a tensegrity network automatically distributes all forces evenly to all components. This results in structures that are cheaper, lighter, and stronger-with each component, whether tension or compression, playing a small, non-crucial role (Ingber 31).
But as we can see from recent scientific discoveries, these are nature's principles, not inventions by men, regardless of the method used to discover them. The ongoing battle of egos between Fuller and Snelson ultimately becomes more interesting from the perspective of the meaning of authorship and ownership than in establishing who is entitled to the credit. The two men had a continuous debate over the ownership of tensegrity principles that peeked in 1980 when Fuller wrote Snelson a twenty-eight-page letter in which he clarified his point of view on this issue. The letter was in response to Snelson's one page letter in which he once again claimed to be the inventor of tensegrity and takes issue with Fuller for having his students imitate his sculpture. Snelson demands:
I would ask you please to explain to me at last-directly, not through an
aide-why you have been purposely dishonest in this entire matter. And, why,
now that I have so established myself as a world-renown artist with these
structures, that you take it as your prerogative to plagiarise further,
through the imitative skills of these young students. Do your ends justify
these means? (Letter to Buckminster Fuller)
In Fuller's lengthy response to Snelson in 1980, it is clear that he wanted to set the record straight and that both men had a lot of mutual resentment towards one another. But this letter also exemplifies the contradiction that so often marked Fuller's persona-because although he states rightly that "inventors cannot invent nor obtain patents on eternal principles-cosmic laws of the Universe" -he had patented the principles of tensegrity eighteen years earlier in 1962 (Letter to Kenneth Snelson). The disagreement between Fuller and Snelson not only brings to the forefront issues of authorship, but also points to potential problems in collaborative work and in the difference between artists who may arrive to discoveries through pure intuition versus a more scientific method. Clearly Snelson was inspired and would not have arrived at the prototype of tensegrity without Fuller's passion for moving away from the cube to the triangle as the primary stable structure. But there is no guarantee that Fuller would have arrived at this structure on his own either, even with all his experience and expertise. In this sense, it is ironic that a young art student discovered these principles, and not Fuller, an engineer with a strong mathematical background and substantial experience in searching for universal systems. Neither man owns this principle, as Fuller himself says, but the credit does go to Snelson for being the one who brought this principle into existence. Fuller however, had a vision for tensegrity that went much further than that of building physical structures. He recognised the universality of tensegrity in the solar system and planetary systems, in macro and microcosmic structuring of invisible tensional gravity, and in atomic structures-and even as a child he was absolutely convinced that triangulation was absolutely necessary for structural stability.
Be as it may, Fuller seems to have been right in his estimation that the principles of tensegrity operate universally. Donald Ingber writes: " . . . in the complex tensegrity structure inside every one of us, bones are the compression struts, and muscles, tendons, and ligaments are the tension-bearing members. At the other end of the scale, proteins and other key molecules in the body also stabilise themselves through the principles of tensegrity" (Ingber 32). Using a simple tensegrity model of a cell built with dowels and an elastic cord, Ingber has shown how tensegrity structures mimic the known behaviour of living cells. A tensegrity structure, like that of a living cell, flattens itself and its nucleus when it attaches itself to a rigid surface and retracts into a more spherical shape on a flexible substrate. Understanding the mechanics of cellular structures could lead to new approaches to cancer therapy and tissue repair and perhaps even to the creation of artificial tissue replacements (Ingber 30-39).
Ingber talks in his article and about the molecule that was named after Fuller, the buckminsterfullerene, and is well acquainted with the work of both Snelson and Fuller. In 1983, he wrote a letter to Fuller in which he stated,
The beauty of life is once again that of geometry with spatial constraints as the only unifying principle. It is of interest to note that, as presented in the accompanying paper, cancer may be then viewed as the opposite of life resulting from a breakdown of this geometric hierarchy of synergetic arrangements. (qtd. in Edmonson 257).