What Steve Jobs Learned From Buckminster Fuller When They Only Met


On October 24, 1980, a man named Taylor Barcroft traveled to San Francisco. He was there to see Buckminster Fuller, the architectural designer and futurist, who was speaking at a wellness conference. After the event, Barcroft headed south with Fuller and a cameraman to Cupertino, where they parked at a building on Bandley Drive. Barcroft had arrived without an appointment, and his whole plan hinged on how confident he now behaved. Leaving Fuller in the car, he drove in and approached the receptionist. “I have Bucky Fuller here for Steve Jobs.”

The visit was a gamble, but he had reason to believe it would pay off. Barcroft, a University of Denver graduate in his early thirties, hoped to produce a series of cable television shows with commentary by Fuller. A segment with one of Apple Computer’s founders would be a compelling proof of concept, but instead of calling ahead, Barcroft figured he’d have better luck showing up unannounced with his famous guest. “I knew Steve was a Bucky fan,” Barcroft recalled. “Anyone like Steve would be a Bucky fan. And I wanted Bucky to meet Steve, who was going to make Bucky’s dream come true.

It was a risky move, but he succeeded. After the receptionist delivered his message, the first person to emerge to greet Barcroft was Mike Markkula, the company’s president, who spoke with him for a minute while he waited for Jobs to appear. The news also reached Daniel Kottke, a sweet but bright 26-year-old who had met Jobs nearly a decade earlier when they were freshmen at Reed College in Oregon. He had become close to Jobs, with whom he later shared a home, and was hired as Apple’s twelfth official employee.

Kottke was at his lab bench, which was in a work area of ​​Herman Miller cubicles and chairs, when someone announced he had a visitor: “Buckminster Fuller is here.” He immediately got up and rushed to the hall, where he saw a group of people standing outside. His eyes were immediately drawn to two men. One was Jobs, who was wearing his usual attire of a casual shirt and jeans, and the other was R. Buckminster Fuller, whose face at the time was familiar across the world.

Fuller, 85, was dressed in the dark suit he favored for all of his public appearances and, in person, he looked surprisingly small. His driver’s license may have said he was five-foot-six, but he had been about two inches shorter even in his youth, and his stature had diminished with age. He had a huge bald head with white hair cut almost to the scalp, a large hearing aid, and black plastic glasses that enlarged his hazel eyes into soft, extremely deep puddles.

Joining the circle, Kottke spoke briefly with Fuller, whose work he had admired since high school. Kottke expected to talk to him more—he was often the one to show guests around the office—but as the group left without him, he realized that Jobs wanted Fuller all to himself.

As for Barcroft, he couldn’t believe his luck. He found himself at a conference table with Fuller and Jobs, who exchanged a few words while a cameraman recorded the meeting. When it came time for a tour, however, Barcroft was also left behind. Jobs clearly didn’t want to include anyone else, and no one would ever know what he and Fuller said to each other privately at Apple, which was just months away from its IPO.

Afterwards, Barcroft drove Fuller back to his hotel. Barcroft was thrilled, but his cable show plan never materialized and he subsequently lost the footage of Fuller and Jobs. For his part, Fuller was not convinced that the personal computer would allow his permanent vision of access to information. “He didn’t believe it,” recalls Barcroft. “He thought only mainframes could do this job.” Fuller had spent his career predicting the impact of technology, but he saw nothing special about Apple: “I remember telling him he thought the computer was a toy.”

Judging by his eagerness to meet Fuller, their meeting left a bigger impression on Steve Jobs, which didn’t surprise Daniel Kottke. “Early on in my friendship with Steve, he was interested in so many things that I was also interested in,” Kottke said. “That definitely included Fuller.” Since the 1960s, college campuses had found an unlikely hero in Fuller, whose reputation as an inventor was based on the geodesic dome, a hemispherical structure used in everything from industrial buildings to hippie townships, as well as the sculpture studio. of Reed. It had received a crucial boost from the Whole Earth Catalog, an oversized guide to books and tools for the counterculture that Jobs, who read it avidly in college with Kottke, described as “one of the bibles of my generation. “.

And Fuller’s influence at Apple was visible in even more fundamental ways. When Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak – who later praised Fuller as “the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century” – needed an industrial designer to build the case for the Apple II, they hired Jerry Manock, graduate of the legendary product design program at Stanford University. Manock created what became the Apple Industrial Design Group using an iterative approach he attributed to Fuller: “He wasn’t interested in solving just one little design problem. He was looking at the next level, the next level and the next level.

A year after his visit to Cupertino, Fuller received an Apple II as a gift, and his connection to the company resulted in a final tribute during his lifetime. Wozniak had spent millions on America’s San Bernardino Festival, which he designed as a Woodstock for his generation, “but maybe better.” On May 30, 1983, the crowd was treated to an elaborate video introduction to Fuller’s philosophy, which hundreds of thousands of spectators watched on a giant screen before Stevie Nicks took the stage to sing “Dreams.”

Fuller died a month later, a year and a half before the Macintosh was released, but his legacy at Apple lived on. On September 28, 1997, a television commercial debuted during the network premiere of the animated film toy story. Steve Jobs had recently returned to Apple in triumph, and on a montage of luminaries – from Martin Luther King Jr. to Pablo Picasso – actor Richard Dreyfuss offered a statement of principles: “Here are the fools. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. Those who see things differently.”

[Cover Image: courtesy HarperCollins]

One of the 17 icons was Buckminster Fuller, who was featured at the request of Jobs himself. Fuller had crossed paths with many other publicity figures, including Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham and Frank Lloyd Wright, and he appeared after John Lennon and Yoko Ono and before Thomas Edison – a fitting place for a man who had been revered by both the counterculture and the establishment.

The “Think Different” campaign was about selling computers, but it was also about an authentic view personified by Fuller, who thought differently – for better or worse – than anyone else. “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them,” Dreyfuss concluded. “Pretty much the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as crazy, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Adapted from Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright © 2022 Alec Nevala-Lee. Reprinted with permission from Dey Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers.

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