Raising the roof: the story of the Geodesic Dome

In 1972, Fermilab completed the Neutrino Dome (now called the Geodesic Dome), constructing it of materials you might find in your kitchen. Photo: Fermilab

In 1972, Fermilab completed the Neutrino Dome (now called the Geodesic Dome), constructing it of materials you might find in your kitchen. Photo: Fermilab

It was in the 1970s, and Fermilab was in the middle of its construction phase. Bob Sheldon had been called in to look for shortcuts and cheaper solutions to problems. Flush with the success of his suggestion to look for obstructions in the accelerator tube by using a ferret, Bob had decided to contribute more original ideas.

Professor Wilson was busy erecting large abstract sculptures on the site. Interesting shapes and striking colors were the order of the day. Bob saw the opportunity for another innovative idea when one of the outlying buildings on the site, which was to be a support facility for a large particle detector, needed a roof.

If the building had to have a roof, why not a spectacular one? Buckminster Fuller’s creations were in full swing at the time and all the rage. A geodesic dome, made of triangles eight feet on a side, would certainly keep the elements out and, if the triangles were double-walled, provide heat insulation too. He decided to make the elements of his dome of two strong sheets of transparent plastic, separated by a large number of strengthening elements. Why not make a honeycomb of sheet metal cylinders, retrieved from salvaged drink cans with their ends punched out?

He quickly devised a simple tool to reduce an empty pop can to a cylinder of sheet metal by removing the circular ends. Now he could find a suitable adhesive and make a prototype triangle to show that the scheme was practicable.

How to obtain the necessary recycled drink cans in the thousands that would be required? Easy. Get some publicity, and appeal to all the schoolchildren in the surrounding area to collect empty soda cans. They would get a good feeling by participating in a serious grown-up project, and the lab would get its roof much more cheaply.

There was a flaw in the argument, of course. Technically, it was a triumph. But the social element had a fatal flaw.

When news of the project got into the local press, it was picked up by a large soft drink company. It wasn’t long before the Fermilab directorate received an official offer to supply the necessary tens of thousands of cylinders free of charge, from an early stage in the production line and before the circular ends had been installed.

It was an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the schoolchildren’s efforts were no longer needed. So the roof was constructed, and it worked.

Frank Beck is a retired CERN staff member living in England. He spent two years at the Fermilab as head of research services when the Energy Saver was being commissioned.

Editor’s note: For more about the construction of the Geodesic Dome, see a collection of articles on the History and Archives Project website. You can also see photos of the roof before it was completed. It received a copper facelift in 1982.