Manhattan Dome

"The Case for a Domed City"

Original Manhattan Dome Proposal


Following is the text of the Manhattan dome article which appeared on page 39-41 of a special supplement of the St. Louis Post Dispatch of 9/26/65, certain to reach the attention of all New Yorkers, titled "Choices and Challenges", and subsequently re-published on page 8 of the January-February 1968 issue of an IBM-published magazine called Think, re-titled "Why Not Roofs Over Our Cities?"


The Case for a Domed City

by R. Buckminster Fuller

There are persuasive arguments in favor of cities under single umbrella shells. Whether the economic advantages can overcome the antievolutionary inertias of large social bodies is, however, questionable. When whole new human settlements are to be installed on virgin sites as, for instance, on the Antarctic continent, the doming-over may be realized. The doming-over of established cities in moderate climate will probably not occur until domed-over cities in virgin lands have proved successful enough to persuade the established cities to employ comprehensive umbrellaing. The established cities will probably not adopt the doming until environmental and other emergencies make it imperative.

A number of advantages are provided by domed-over cities. First is the advantage accruing exclusively to energy quantum changed inherent in size changes and growth rates. When we double the diameter of a dome, its surface area increases fourfold and its volume increases eightfold. This also means that the number of molecules and atoms of the gases of the atmosphere enclosed by the double size dome is multiplied eightfold, while the number of atoms of the shell is multiplied only four-fold.

Variations in atmospheric temperature are caused by increased motion and resultant crowding of the atmospheric molecules. Therefore, each time we double the size of a dome, the amount of surface of the dome through which each molecule of interior atmospheric gas could dissipate its heat is halved; also, the number of molecules able to reach the surface in a given time is halved.

We can say that the larger the dome, the slower the rate of energy loss as heat -- that is, when the heat is greater inside than outside; conversely, when the exterior heat is greater, the larger the dome the lower the rate of energy gain as heat from outside is received and transmitted through the dome's surface to the gaseous molecules inside the dome.

The energy conservation of a closed local system improves twofold each time the system's linear dimensions are doubled. This principle is demonstrated in stars and in icebergs. Icebergs can melt only as fast as they can import heat from their surrounding environment of air and ocean through the surface of the iceberg. The larger the iceberg, the lower the ratio of surface area to its volume or mass. However, as icebergs melt, their mass gets smaller at a mathematical velocity of the third power while their surface area decreases only at a velocity of the second power. This is to say the volume decreases much more rapidly than does the surface area, so, as icebergs get smaller, the amount of surface area for each unit of volume of its interior mass increases at an accelerating rate.

Therefore, icebergs melt faster and faster and when the final piece of ice dwindles to pea size it can be seen, by the human eye, to accelerate to extinction. Due to the principle of energy conservation improvement with size, the larger the domed-over city the more stable its atmospheric conditions become, and at ever-decreasing cost per unit of volume.

A second advantage also relates to relative surfaces. When we wish to design a good air-cooled gasoline engine, we design it with many fins, as with the typical motorcycle engine. The greater the external surface the more effectively will the heat be conducted from the small interior to the large exterior surface. Though it would be impractical from a service viewpoint, the surface of the air-cooled engine could be further increased by modifying the same amount of metal, used in the fins, to take the form of spines or spindles like the quills of a porcupine.

If one looks at an aerial photograph of Manhattan Island, New York, there is seen just such a spined, or spindled, high-speed cooling system. The energy consumed by New York City to heat it in winter and cool it in summer is employed in a structural system that operates most effectively in the swift release of the energy to the surrounding atmosphere. There is no structural method of enclosing the circulation space of the city's dwellers that is more effective in wasting heating and cooling energy than that structural system employed by New York and other skyscraper cities of the world. Spheres enclose the most volume with the lease surface and, as we have seen before, the larger the sphere the lower the ratio of surface atoms to enclosed atmospheric atoms.

A dome over mid-Manhattan, reaching from the Hudson to the East river at Forty-second street, on its east-west axis, and from Twenty-second to Sixty-fourth street on its north-south axis, would consist of a hemisphere two miles in diameter and one mile high at its center. The peak of the Empire State building's television tower would reach only a third of the distance from the street to the domed surface above it. The total surface of the dome is just twice that of the base area of Manhattan that it would occupy.

A cube has six square faces. If we build a cubical building on a square of land, five of its six faces are exposed to the air. If we build a square-based building, two cubes high, the exposed vertical and top surfaces of the building are exactly nine times the area of the land occupied by its base. If the building is 10 times as high as the edge of its square base, its exposed vertical and top surfaces are 41 times the area occupied by its base. If 20 stories high, it is 81 times the base area.

Using such calculations and taking an inventory of the building heights in each of the city blocks of midtown Manhattan that would be covered by the dome, we find that the total surface of the dome is only one fiftieth of the total exposed surface areas of the buildings which it would cover. The energy losses of midtown Manhattan, under such a dome, would be reduced approximately fiftyfold and the energy lost through the building walls, during both the heated winter and air-cooled summer conditions, would not be lost to the outer atmosphere but lost only to the controlled interior environment of the dome, and therefore could not be considered as lost. We have already learned of the extra-ordinary energy conservation of big domes, so that the very moderate temperature level the dome would be effectively maintained, with energy savings to the city and its inhabitants of probably better than 90 per cent as against the undomed conditions.

The cost of snow removal in New York City would pay for the dome in 10 years.

Studies made at the Snow Institute of Japan and by Mitsubishi Co. (the General Electric of Japan) indicate the cost of heating the surface of the domes. With electric resistance wires bedded in the skin, to maintain a temperature sufficient to melt snow and ice -- with the electric heat turned on only during the time of snow and ice formation, for cities in the snowfall magnitude of New York -- would be far less than the cost of amortizing the expense of the additional structure necessary to support the cumulative snow loads throughout the winter months.

When rain falls on New York City and its counterparts around the world, it runs down the buildings into the streets, then into gutters and on to the sewers to be polluted with all the other waters. Year after year New York and other cities have suffered water shortages, though they are deluged with summer thundershowers when enough water falls to take care of the city for days. With a domed-over city, both the melted snow water and the rain would run neatly to a guttering, clear of the pollution of the streets, down into a canal around the dome's lower rim from whence it would flow to great collecting reservoirs. There would be enough attitude in the dome to cause the water to flow gravitationally back to the storage reservoirs in Westchester.

Because the energy losses would be so greatly reduced for the covered portion of the city, the heating and cooling could be handled most economically by electrical energy wired in from generators, far from the domed-over city. A new ultra-high-voltage electrical conducting system will soon bring New York electrical energy, by wire, all the way from the Pennsylvania Hills, where the coal is to be mined and burnt in steam-driven electric generators at the mine mouths. This will eliminate all fumes from the atmosphere covered by the dome. The dome would also be able to umbrella away the fumes occurring outside the dome and originating inside the satellite industrial areas.

Those who have had the pleasure of walking through the great skylighted arcades, such as the one in Milan, Italy, are familiar with the delights of covered city streets in which it is practical to have outdoor restaurants and exhibits. They will be able to envision the arcaded effect of a domed-over city in which windows may be open the year round, gardens in bloom and general displays practical in the dust-free atmosphere. The daylight will be bright inside the domes, without direct sun. All the part of the dome through which the sun does not shine directly will be transparent. These domed-over cities in the northern hemisphere will have the southern part of the dome, which receives the approximately perpendicular rays of the sun, protected in summer by polarized glass so that the dome will not gain heat during the sunny hours. In the winter the sun will be allowed to penetrate, to impound the sun's energy.

Structural calculations on the two-mile dome for mid-Manhattan indicate that the individual structural elements would have a girth less than that of the masts of the S.S. Queen Mary. In the accompanying picture of this dome, hypothetically imposed on an aerial view of Manhattan, the Queen Mary is to be seen through the lower left part of the dome, lying at her dock at Fifty-eight street and the Hudson river. The smokestacks of the ship can be discerned but the masts, which are just a fraction of the diameter of the funnels, are invisible from the height of the photographing airplane. For the same reason, the structural members of the dome also are invisible. They are as invisible as are the wires of a screened-in porch when viewed from 100 feet distant. For this reasons the appearance of the dome would be as seen in the picture -- that is, as a glistening translucent form. One would get the same effect if he photographed an ordinary kitchen wire strainer, turned upside down and placed 100 feet away.

Such a shielding dome would also, very effectively, exclude the sound of passing jet planes. The lower edge of the dome over the city would be at such a height above the city as to make it appear as a high umbrella, with plenty of blue sky visible under its rim. The dome would appear from below as a translucent film through which the sky, clouds and stars would be visible. It would not create a shut-in feeling any more than carrying a parasol above one's head on a summer day.

The dome's skins, consisting of wire-reinforced, one-way-vision, shatterproof glass, mist-plated with aluminum, will have the exterior appearance of a mirrored dome, while the viewer inside will see out without conscious impairment. This will cut down the interior sunlight to a nonglare level. Most importantly, such domes would provide a prime shielding against atomic radiation fall-out, reducing the radiation effects of neighboring regions' atomic explosions to below lethal or critical impairment magnitude.

City-covering domes of prestressed and poststressed steel and concrete could be made so powerful that they could be covered with earth and become man-made earth mountains, completely air conditioned. When such large domes are made the captive atmosphere in itself is enough to support the structural shell, as does a large pneumatic tire. The larger the dome, the lower the pressure necessary to carry a given load. With such very large domes, the air introduced with the air conditioning would keep up the shell-sustaining structure.


(Biographical sidebar:) R. Buckminster Fuller, the engineer-scientist-designer who invented the geodesic dome, has been offering dramatic environmental innovations since 1917, from a one-piece die-stamped bathroom to a plan for a mile-high roof over midtown Manhattan. The web-like geodesic dome, light and strong, has been Fuller's most eminent contribution and thousands of them have been built in all parts of the world. Fuller is associated with Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he lives in a geodesic dome.


Copyright 1997 - 2007 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.