The Dymaxion Map Projection of Buckminster Fuller

When we think of a world map, we tend to envision something like this, or like this, or maybe even like this. But what if you portrayed the earth like this?
uapoK

Click the map to enlarge (1024 x 2048).

If you’re wondering why the continents are positioned like that, or what those giant triangular lines around the edge are, then you’ve probably never seen Buckminster Fuller‘s ‘Dymaxion AirOcean World Map’ (more simply, the ‘Dymaxion map‘). Released in 1954 afteryears of tinkering, the Dymaxion projection represented the legendary engineer/inventor/environmentalist/futurist’s attempt to produce the best all-at-once depiction of the Earth that could be possible on a flat surface. And, yes, he even patented it back in 1946, although originally on a cuboctahedron (eight triangular sides, six square sides) instead of the icosahedron (a polyhedron with 20 equal triangular sides) that he settled on 1954. The word ‘Dymaxion‘ was also given to the world by Fuller (well, one of his friends in the advertising world); a portmanteau of ‘dynamic maximum tension’ (or simply ‘ion’). Fuller trademarked ‘Dymaxion’ and applied the word to numerous inventions, including an experimental van and a low-cost pre-fabricated house.

The projection itself produces one of the more accurate portrayals of landmass size and shape on a global scale you will find anywhere (in fact, it was intended only for global-scale maps; Fuller wanted the world to be viewed as an island- he was one of the early adopters of the ‘Spaceship Earth‘ mantra in the 1960s). What makes the map truly unique is that each edge of each triangular face matches the scale of a partial great circle on a corresponding globe, keeping scale nearly constant throughout the map. Rather pushing the distortion toward the edge of the map as seen in other projections, artificially enlarging land near the edges, points on each Dymaxion map face shrink slightly toward the middle. Because there are so many map facets instead of just one giant map face, the distortion is minimal.

Dymaxion_map_unfolded
Dymaxion projection with North America at the centre.
Dymaxion_map_unfolded-no-ocean

The same projection style with no ocean.

There are many advantages to this projection. Perhaps most notably, the map can be unfolded in a way that doesn’t cut apart any land mass, allowing one the view all of Earth’s land masses at one with little distortion in the way of size or shape. Take the above maps, for example. We are so used to seeing either an abnormally large Greenland or an abnormally stretched Greenland on our world maps that it can be jarring to see it portrayed at an accurate ratio of size and shape instead of the near-continent it usually seems to be portrayed as. Or as another example, Antarctica. As the only polar continent, it usually winds up being absurdly distorted at the bottom of the map to the point where its size and shape aren’t even discernible. The Dymaxion projection allows the viewer to fairly contrast and compare Antarctica against the other major landmasses of the world (a smidge smaller than South America; a bit larger than Europe).

Fuller also touted the fact that his projection meant that the map could be unfolded in many different ways depending upon what part of the world one wanted to emphasise. Most world maps we see use the Prime Meridian (0°) as the base, meaning that Europe and Africa always wind up in the middle of a map based upon standard cardinal directions, and the map thus requires a projection based upon those directions. The Dymaxion projection allows any part of the Earth to be used as the centre focus of the map (removing the Eurocentric bias), and allows the map to be unfolded in hundreds of different combinations depending upon where one peels apart the triangular edges.

Dymaxion_map_ocean2

Dymaxion projection with Antarctica at the centre. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/Dymaxion_map_ocean2.png. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

The folding and unfolding of the 20-sided icosahedron from a globe to a Dymaxion map and back to a globe, as originally animated quite fantastically by Chris Rywalt. You may download the entire animation set at higher resolution including all 77 original frames and the POV code used to produce them here.

The downside, of course, is that any world map that is produced will not be oriented in the manner in which we are accustomed to viewing the Earth (north-south-east-west with the poles at the top and bottom). As well, there is the jagged nature of the outline of the map, which is riddled with large triangular sinuses and consequently doesn’t look ‘clean’. A Dymaxion map sacrifices placement, direction and orientation for accuracy of size and shape. Fuller, naturally, dismissed the ideas of ‘north’ and ‘south’ and ‘up’ and ‘down’ as human constructs. His goal with this projection, after all, was to accurately render the size and shape of the world’s landmasses in a single view with the added advantage of portraying the world’s landmasses, and thus humanity, as essentially united in a giant island: if we ‘visualize the whole planet with greater accuracy, we humans will be better equipped to address challenges as we face our common future aboard Spaceship Earth’.

For a much more intensive analysis of Fuller’ Dymaxion map, visit this rather comprehensive site maintained by retired professor Gene Keyes (it should be noted that parts of it come with a point of view comparing the merits of the Dymaxion map versus the earlier butterfly map of Bernard Cahill; regardless, it’s a great source of Dymaxion map information). Or if you just want to see the map in action, you can play around with different arrangements of the projection here.

Further Reading

Buckminster Fuller Institute (n.d.). Dymaxion Map: The Fuller Projection Map. Available at http://www.bfi.org/about-bucky/buckys-big-ideas/dymaxion-world/dymaxion-map. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Buckminster Fuller Institute (1992). Frequently Asked Questions About The Fuller Projection. Available at Global Energy Network Institutehttp://www.geni.org/globalenergy/library/buckminster_fuller/dymaxion_map/fuller-faq.shtml. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Fearnley, C.J. (2002). The R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ. 6 November 2002. Available at http://www.cjfearnley.com/fuller-faq.html. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Gray, R.W. (2006). Notes to Fuller’s World Maps. The Projects of R.W. Gray, 31 March 2006. Available at http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/rbfnotes/maps/graymap1.html. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Keyes, G. (2009). Evolution of the Dymaxion Map: An Illustrated Tour and Critique. 15 June 2009. Available at http://www.genekeyes.com/FULLER/BF-1-intro.html. Accessed 7 December 2010.

McQuinn, J. (2009). Icosahedron Earth. Cartophilia, 14 December 2009. Available at http://blog.cartophilia.com/2009/12/icosahedron-earth.html. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Rywalt, C. (2003). Dymaxion Projection Animation. Chris Rywalt’s Portfolio Page. Available at http://www.westnet.com/~crywalt/unfold.html. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Urner, K. (n.d.). Fuller Projection. Synergetics on the Web. Available at http://www.grunch.net/synergetics/map/dymax.html.

Woodside, S. (2005). Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion map of the world. S&W, 1 August 2005. Available at http://simonwoodside.com/weblog/2005/8/1/buckminster_fullers_dymaxion_map_of_the_w/. Accessed 7 December 2010.

Nearby Articles