Beneath the desk lamp in the darkened study overlooking Riverside Drive in New York lay a book manuscript titled ''Nine Chains to the Moon.'' Albert Einstein, in from Princeton this evening to visit some friends, had asked that its author be invited over for a chat. Looking up from the text, he quietly said , ''Young man, you amaze me.''
Young Buckminster Fuller would come to amaze many more people as an inventor, mathematician, industrial designer, architectural engineer, environmental planner, cartographer, poet - indeed as one of the more respected and beloved sages of our time.
At this point, however, in 1935, most people thought he was little more than a loquacious, affable nut engaged in slapstick science. He had worked for five years on the manuscript for ''Nine Chains,'' having been moved to do so by an article of Einstein's titled ''The Cosmic Religious Sense.''
The publisher balked, telling Fuller that they had looked up the list of all the people who understood Einstein and that he wasn't on it. So Fuller suggested they send his manuscript to Einstein for his opinion.
''Nine Chains'' came out in 1938 - an idiosyncratic and imaginative study, juxtaposing the history of science and the advances of technology, projecting a bright outlook for mankind's social, economic, and environmental future.
Fuller, who passed on last July, never relinquished this outlook. Undeterred by the welter of squabbling in this world, his thinking, along with the personable, highly practical ways in which he shared it, led the poet Ezra Pound to call him a ''friend of the universe, bringer of happiness, and liberator.''
His renown initially stemmed from his invention of the geodesic dome in the late 1940s. Its best-known example was the US Pavilion at Montreal's Expo 67. But understanding Fuller in terms of the dome alone is a little like ''understanding'' Leonardo da Vinci, to whom he was often compared, in terms of the ''Mona Lisa'' alone. I once heard him tell a group of inquisitive college students, eager to know more about the dome's technical details, ''Dear fellows, I am not a dome salesman.''
What was he then? When pressed to describe himself, Fuller simply said, ''I'm a terrific bundle of experience, that's all.''
The late Archibald MacLeish put it differently: ''If any man's life has reconciled our early spiritual achievements with our later scientific triumphs, it is his. And if there is a living contemporary who truly knows what it is to be an American, Buckminster Fuller is that man.''
Born in 1895 of an old, distinguished New England family, Fuller was booted out of Harvard because he thought ''playing around made more sense than the curriculum.'' During World War I, he joined the Navy and encountered the world of navigation, logistics, mathematics, mechanics, electronics, engineering, and communications. Soon thereafter, he married Anne Hewlett and was a doting father to his daughter, whom they lost in 1922 just before her fourth birthday.
Riddled with remorse, he found himself head of a building business (the Stockade Company) manufacturing a light-weight block developed by his father-in-law, the noted New York architect James Monroe Hewlett. Backed by a rich Lake Forest, Ill., cousin and a number of his friends, Fuller set up five subsidiaries and moved from New York to Chicago in the mid-1920s. Then in 1927, as his second daughter was born, the business fell apart, and he was forced out.
An emotional tailspin brought Fuller close to suicide, but a new inspiration pulled him out of the dive. Falling silent for almost two years, he prepared to put the inspiration to work, rediscovered his own volition, and unleashed his inventive powers.
The inventions soon followed. He developed his Dymaxion House in 1928, coining its name from the words dynamic, maximum, and ion. Employing new aluminum alloys, a system for recycling garbage to create methane power, and a plethora of labor-saving devices, this gleaming hexagonal dwelling was to be suspended on cables from a central mast. It weighed only three tons and cost 25 cents a pound. It would be manufactured, shipped, and put up quickly for the price of a Model A Ford.
Another invention was the Dymaxion Car, which he built in an old Locomobile factory in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1933. It was a popular attraction that year at the Chicago World's Fair. Looking like a bionic sea slug, it could reach 120 miles an hour. The three-wheel vehicle had front-wheel drive and a rear V-8 engine - and got 35 miles per gallon.
Amelia Earhart loved it. So did Eleanor Roosevelt. Leopold Stokowski bought one of the three that were made. Yet the car, like the house, got nowhere.
Fuller kept inventing, perfecting his prototypes for enlightened industrialization: in 1937, a Dymaxion Bathroom; in 1940, a Dymaxion Deployment Unit for sheltering servicemen in far-off places; in 1943, a Dymaxion Map (the first cartographic projection ever granted a US patent) that eliminated all visible distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the earth's geographical features; and in 1944, the Wichita House (meant for assembly-line production at Beech Aircraft there) which weighed three tons and cost $6,400.
Fuller's fame as an engineering wizard and environmental prophet grew as well , and in the years remaining to him he would travel around the world 50 times. Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American, noted that he ''carried into our time the revolutionary activity of 'promoting useful knowledge' begun by Benjamin Franklin.'' And David Rockefeller viewed Fuller as ''a visionary whose ideas have an extraordinary relevance to both present and future generations.''
Fuller had his detractors, of course. Lewis Mumford, for example, whom many regard as Fuller's archrival, resented his promotion of the positive, redemptive role of technology when its effects had already so evidently damaged the physical harmony and human scale of the environment.
For others, his long-running affair with industrialized shelter, from the Dymaxion to the dome, posited an assembly-line world of preposterous dimension and numbing uniformity.
Yet Fuller's geodesic dome, with its enfolding spherical latticework of triangular facets, was to become a ubiquitous, versatile presence around the world. Even that, however, was only the expressive countenance of a new harmony of mathematics and geometry that began wafting through his mind more than 60 years ago. He called it Synergetics, believing that it explained the dynamic matter-and-energy transformations going on in the universe. Fuller discerned what he thought of as an evanescent array of weightless, invisible ''energy events,'' which he likened to vectors, descriptive of direction, magnitude, and velocity.
He concluded that their minimum configuration is the tetrahedron, which can be visualized as a pyramid with a triangular base and which is the sturdiest structure in mathematics. As the icon of his principle of doing more with less, the tetrahedron represented to Fuller the most innately economical, efficient, and elegant component of his cosmos. He eschewed our reliance on the cube, with its familiar XYZ coordinates and right-angled imagery.
Toward the end of his life, Fuller became increasingly anxious about what H.L. Mencken had called our ''lust for making the world intolerable.''
He worked to invigorate the conscience of countless numbers, animating the concept that man's resolve, environmental conscience, cultural enrichment, and technological advance can be tooled for mutual benefit. Yet Fuller was by no means oblivious to evil, though he was very effective at talking people out of jumping ship or drifting into indifference.
''Human beings evolved to perceive principles, to gather information, to solve problems, to use their minds,'' he exhorted some US senators, adding that ''I don't think we have much beyond l985 to pass our final cosmic examination, by . . . really starting to think! . . . Do we really understand that each of us is only here for all the others? If the answer is, 'I am here just for me,' then I think humanity is going to fail its exam.''
Such concerns and comments of Buckminster Fuller inspired James Park Morton, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York to observe that Fuller was ''one of the most religious men I ever met . . . .''
Or, as architect Kevin Roche put it, ''Buckminster Fuller's very being honored the 20th century.''