Did Bucky Fuller Really Design a Soccer Ball?

via. buckminster Fuller Institute

Last year Eric van Rheenen wrote on Mental Floss that "the ball most commonly seen today — the one with black and white pentagons and hexagons — was first designed in the 1960s by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose forte was designing buildings using minimal materials". This got quoted by John Gruber on Daring Fireball on June 16 and has become almost accepted knowledge.

From the get-go, it didn't make a lot of sense; the soccer ball is what is known as a truncated icosahedron, a basic form that goes back to Archimedes. Anyone who has ever tried to build a geodesic dome, Bucky Fuller's invention, knows that they are a lot more complicated and are made of triangles, not hexagons and pentagons. I have read almost everything that has been written about Buckminster Fuller (I owned a dome once) and had never heard about the soccer ball until Daring Fireball picked up this story. I thought that perhaps everyone was getting confused with Buckyballs, the carbon molecule discovered in 1985 that was named Buckminsterfullerine, or Buckyballs, in honor of Fuller. Move along, nothing to see here.

Then Dan Nosowitz of FastCoExist wrote The Curious History of the World Cup Soccer Ball and wrote:

Buckminster Fuller changed all that with the 1970 World Cup, also the first time Adidas manufactured the official ball. (Adidas has made every World Cup ball since.) Fuller's ball, the classic black-and-white, contained 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons rather than the by-then-standard strips. (This pattern became so iconic that a similar-looking molecule was eventually created and named after Fuller.)
Adidas Telstar

WP/ Adidas Telstar/CC BY 2.0

Time to try and nip this one in the bud. The Telstar Elast was first made for the European Championships in 1968 and was named after Telstar, the first communications satellite.
UPDATE: A reader advises us that this is not true, that it was designed by Eigil Nielson a Danish footballer who started Select Sport in 1947 and developed the ball in 1962. The design became famous when Adidas used it in 1970.
Making balls using the truncated icosahedron form was well known at the time; Adidas created the ball, with its black pentagons and white hexagons, to be highly visible on black and white televisions. Bucky Fuller was 73 years old at the time and on the lecture circuit. He never talked about soccer. A search of his official history at the Buckminster Fuller Institute doesn't mention it either.

Bucky designed many wonderful things, but I don't think a soccer ball was one of them.

Telstar was a big deal; The Ventures even had a hit song about it.

We had fun with this, thanks to Margaret Badore.


Photoshop by Margaret Badore/CC BY 2.0