Dymaxion Map Projection

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Humans have always had a particular fascination with understanding the world around them, and this appeal can be seen in the large number of maps invented throughout history starting with the ancient Greeks. All different varieties of maps have appeared, highlighting certain geographical, cultural, political, or social phenomena. Maps are also a common part of our everyday lives. Maps, however, in themselves have a fundamental flaw: maps are almost always incomplete representations of the earth since the earth is a sphere and maps are usually two-dimensional flat surfaces.

Over the years, there are been many attempts to create a map projection that more fully represents the Earth in its relative shape, distance, area, and direction. The Mercator world map and Robinson projection are popular map projections that we are familiar with. However, these maps still have some extreme distortions. For example, in the Mercator projection, the poles are problematic with Greenland appearing to be three times its relative size and Antarctica appearing as a long, thin, white strip across the bottom. In the Robinson projection, Greenland still appears to be larger than its actual size. Distortions continue to be a problem for every two-dimensional map.

What is a Dymaxion Map?

One attempt to make a better map with fewer distortions is called the Dymaxion map, also known as the Fuller Map Projection. This map was created by Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, author, and inventor. What makes the map unique is that the Earth is projected onto the surface of an icosahedron, a polyhedron that is comprised of twenty triangular faces and thirty edges. This unique shape can be flattened into two dimensions but also folded to create a three dimensional object. When flattened, the Dymaxion map shows the Earth’s continents as almost one contiguous land mass or island in the middle of one ocean. When folded, the map is a rough three dimensional representation of the earth.

The Dymaxion map from Buckminster Fuller stands out because it is the only flat map of the Earth’s surface in its entirety that does not contain any obvious visual distortions of the shapes and sizes of land masses relative to their global scales. It is also does this without splitting any of the continents. The map, however, does have an unusual configuration in order to preserve shapes and sizes. The Dymaxion map was only intended to be used for representations of the complete globe. Each triangle edge of the Fuller Projection Map lines up with the scale of a partial great circle on a corresponding globe, and the other points within each of its facets shrink towards the middle instead of enlarging around the edges like other map projections.

Unfolded Dymaxion Map (dashed lines indicate fold points) by Eric Gaba, 2009.

Unfolded Dymaxion Map (dashed lines indicate fold points) by Eric Gaba, 2009.

Buckminster Fuller worked on the map for several decades before applying and receiving a patent for the Dymaxion map in 1946. The original projection was onto a cuboctahedron, but then in 1954, Fuller used a modified icosahedron which is still in use today. The map projection that bears Fuller’s name was first introduced in an edition of Life magazine in March of 1943. The article, titled “Life Presents R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion World,” is a photographic essay about the map and included a pull-out section and assembly instructions so that readers could make their own Dymaxion map. The article also gave examples of how these particular maps could be used.

R. Buckminster Fuller holding a Dymaxion Map in Life Magazine, 1943.

R. Buckminster Fuller holding a Dymaxion Map (Life Magazine, 1943).

Fuller completed the map after working on it for several decades. He appeared to understand the fundamental problem with maps and wanted to create a map that would not grossly distort the relative size and shapes of the different continents. According to Fuller, the primary function of a Dymaxion map was to allow people to view the land masses without dividing them up. He also wanted to create a map that can be unfolded in many different ways in order to emphasize many different aspects of the world. Plus, the way the Earth appears as one large land mass surrounded when the map is flattened depicts how ancient peoples thought about the world. Fuller wanted to create the best visual representation of what he called Spaceship Earth.

Maps are also problematic in that they can reflect a cultural or political bias. Traditional maps have been criticized for reinforcing elements that separate humanity and supporting us versus them thinking, self-interests, and isolation. These traditional maps often fail to represent the patterns of the increasing globalization and growing relationships across continents. Fuller himself was critical of the way maps exhibited the northern hemisphere as superior and the southern hemisphere as inferior. He argued that his Dymaxion map had no right way up since there is no up or down in the universe.

DYMAX REDUX Map Contest

In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the publication of Fuller’s Dymaxion map in Life magazine, the Buckminster Fuller Institute held a mapmaking contest for visual artists, graphic designers, and citizen cartographers called Dymax Redux. The goal for each participant was to create a new and inspiring interpretation of the Dymaxion map. The prize for the finalists included having their maps featured in a gallery exhibition in New York City, and the winning entry is to be produced as a poster and offered for sale. Nicole Santucci of Woodcut Maps was ultimately chosen as the winner. The contest had over three hundred entities from forty-two countries.

Dymaxion Woodocean World   Nicole Santucci + Woodcut Maps

Dymaxion Woodocean World Nicole Santucci + Woodcut Maps

References:

“Dymaxion Map.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dymaxion_map

“Dymaxion Map: The Fuller Projection Map.” http://www.bfi.org/about-bucky/buckys-big-ideas/dymaxion-world/dymaxion-map

“Life Presents R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map.” http://books.google.com/books?id=WlEEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA41&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

“Notes to Fuller’s World Maps.” http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/rbfnotes/maps/graymap1.html

“Dymax Redux Winner.” http://www.bfi.org/mapcontest

 


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