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July 02, 2020 5 min read 3 Comments

Let’s start with domes.  It is certainly much easier to build a room with four walls and then make a roof to put over them.  But if the requirement is to have a room with no internal supports, where the walls have no sharp angles and converge together at the top, then the most obvious solution is a dome, by default.  Whether it is a classical round-top dome or an onion-shaped dome, the enclosed space feels much different than that of a rectangular building.  The dome shape is efficient and aesthetic – it brings a degree of art into a structure that could have been just functional.  As for origins, domes have been around for a very long time.  The first domes were likely made of wood; limbs from trees would be easy enough to transport, and could be cut into the right lengths.  Unfortunately, wood disintegrates after a few thousand years, and we have no idea when or where the first domes were built.  The most ancient remains of a surviving domed construction may be the four small dwellings made of mammoth tusks and bones discovered by a farmer in Mezhirich, Ukraine, in 1965 who happened on them while he was digging in his cellar.

They have been dated to as early as 19,280–11,700 BC.

Evidence of stone and brick domes have also been found in early Mesopotamian cultures, in the Middle East. The ancient world saw domes in the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Chinese cultures, both in above-ground buildings and as underground tombs.  It’s fair to say that the engineering and architectural problems posed by domes intrigued ancient peoples, and they more than met the challenge.


  So domes in general go back a long way.  How about geodesic domes?  Most people associate them with R. Buckminster Fuller, who lived in the last century.  His contributions to popularizing geodesic domes cannot be overstated, but he didn’t invent them (even though he was granted a patent on them), and the mathematical concepts that are used to design a geodesic dome aren’t all that modern, either.


The math used to create geodesic domes has a very long history, and that history gives us even more appreciation for the structures themselves.

Early Greek Math Culture

The ancient Greeks - Thales, Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras and their contemporaries, all made contributions to much of the math that we’re taught in school today.  Their discovery of some of the fundamental relationships between lines, circles, squares and 3-D shapes became the basis for the math used in all modern architecture, engineering, and topographical surveying.  Pythagoras, famous for his theorem on right triangles, was especially important to the geodesic dome.  After all, geodesic domes are composed entirely of triangle shapes, and where would be without a²+b²=c²?



The Great Lighthouse of Alexandria

Around 225 BC, many years after Pythagoras died, a Greek intellectual named Eratosthenes was given the prestigious job of overseeing the great library in Alexandria, Egypt.  The Lighthouse in Alexandria, built to guide sailors into its harbor and visible some 35 miles out to sea, was likely the tallest manmade structure in the world at the time.  By measuring the angle of the shadow of the lighthouse ( 7.2 degrees at noon on the summer solstice) and comparing it to the angle in Syene, some 575 miles away (where the angle was zero), he calculated that the earth’s circumference must be about 25,000 miles in diameter.  Considering that today’s accepted value is 24,901 miles, he came remarkably close.   Eratosthenes applied the geometry available at the time and used it to ‘measure the size of the earth’ – which is basically what geodesic means.  Our word geodesic comes from the word ‘geodesy’, which is itself formed from two Greek words, geo for ‘earth’ and desy, for ‘measuring the size of’.  Today’s geodesic domes are sections of spheres (which is the earth’s shape) described by triangles in repeating patterns of size and frequency.  Eratosthenes could have used his math to build a geodesic model, but he didn’t, as far as we know.   He did prove that geometry was scalable at the planetary level, and we now have the word ‘geodesic’ to thank him for it.


 The Romans Built a Big Dome

Whereas Eratosthenes did not build any domes, the Romans were amazing builders.  And they were not afraid to build on a monumental scale.  Marcus Agrippa built the first rendition of the Pantheon in Rome in 20 BC, and although it burned down twice in the next 100 years, it still stands today as the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome spanning 142’ in diameter.  Among its other architectural points, it features an oculus, a circular opening in the very top of the dome that allows hot air to escape and light to come in.


20th Century Pioneers

  Long before Buckminster Fuller filed his patent for geodesic domes in 1954, Walther Bauersfeld, the senior engineer at the Carl Zeiss optical factory in Jena, Germany, built a planetarium on the company's roof in 1926 using a geodesic design. It was known as the ‘Wonder of Jena’.   He used the inside of the dome to demonstrate the superior optics of his Zeiss projectors.   That dome has long since been taken down.


Several decades later, in the early 1950's, Fuller and his students built some domes at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he believed he could demonstrate that their shape and structure were the solution to low cost housing.  His first big customer, however, was the US Marines, who used them for radar installations.

Woods Hole Dome


Radar Dome

Fuller got a big publicity break at the 1964 New York World’s fair where a dome designed by Thomas C. Howard was built.  That dome is still standing today at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park where it serves as an aviary for the Queens Zoo.


Another remarkable example of geodesic design is the ‘Spaceship Earth’ exhibit at Disney’s Epcot theme park in Bay Lake, Florida.  Today, it and thousands of other geodesic domes can be found all over planet earth.

Just like our ancestors, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to appreciate a freestanding structure with no internal supports that looks like it’s trying to imitate a round dome, but in a very angular way.  The good news is that anyone today can make one out of common materials with a little effort and some simple tools. 

Spaceship Earth at Epcot


Sonostar Universal Structures has taken the dome concept, combined it with a geodesic dome calculator, and introduced PVC hubs, making inexpensive kits available to creative builders all over the world, with many thanks to the internet.   Our geodesic domes have been used for all different kinds of applications, from shelters to greenhouses to special effects theaters.  Now, when you build one, you’re literally standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before you, joining with builders all over the planet who are motivated by the same creativity that inspired the first domes.

Eratosthenes would be proud.

3 Responses

Bruce Hubbard
Bruce Hubbard

July 06, 2020

Great article. . .explains a lot I never knew.

Jackiee Rogers
Jackiee Rogers

July 05, 2020

I was not finished. this computer gets ahead of me at times. Would the roundness of the structure allow the air to flow around it, thus not destroying the structure? Very interesting subject, thank you Jon. Jackie Rogers

Jackiee Rogers
Jackiee Rogers

July 05, 2020

Jon, I found your dissertation on the Geodesic Dome to be very informative. I have often wondered why this type of structure would not work in the toronado belt.

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