What is a Tensegrity?

Tensegrity is the pattern that results when push and pull have a win-win relationship with each other. The pull is continuous and the push is discontinuous. The continuous pull is balanced by the discontinuous push producing an integrity of tension and compression. This creates a powerful self-stabilizing system. The term tensegrity comes from synergic science.

Other of my links related to Tensegrity include my recently revised description of the Organizational Tensegrity: ORTEGRITY and my description of another innovation I call gifting tensegrities which is a replacement for the Fair Market of Capitalism. You can read a brief description of GIFTegrity or a longer scientific discussion of the concept.

Tensegrity is well explained by R. Buckminster Fullers in his major opus Synergetics . However reading Fuller requires an investment of time because of his highly original use of language. Those new to Fuller some time think he is writing in a foreign language. One of his students Amy Edmonson has written a “English” translation of Fuller’s works called A Fuller Explanation.

The originator of human-made tensegrities was a student of R. Buckminster Fuller as well as an artist. His name is Kenneth Snelson. He created the first human made Tensegrity an artistic sculpture he called the X-piece in 1949. When he showed it to Fuller, it made a powerful impression. Fuller asked to have it as a gift and spend hours looking and thinking about it. Fuller realized that Snelson’s sculpture was an example of a powerful pattern of organization in Nature. Fuller coined the term tension integrity to describe this pattern. Later he would shorten the term to simply tensegrity.

Later, Snelson came to believe that Fuller did not give him-Snelson appropriate credit for the invention of the tensegrity. And that was true. Snelson’s invention of the X-piece was the first human made example of a cable and strut tensegrity and Snelson brought the pattern of tensegrity to Fuller’s attention. However, tensegrity is much more than an artistic sculpture. Tensegrity is a pattern of organization. It has many forms other than the cable and strut form found in Snelson’s X-piece.

Tensegrities exist throughout nature waiting to be discovered. For instance, the automobile pneumatic tire is a tensegrity. These were invented long before Snelson’s sculpture, but were not recognized as tensegrities. Fuller contribution was in recognizing that Snelson’s sculpture was an example of Nature’s most powerful pattern of organization.

That said, I believe Fuller could have been more careful to acknowledge Snelson’s achievement in inventing the first cable and strut tensegrity and for bringing this pattern of organization to his-Fuller’s attention.The solar system is a tensegrity. As Edmonson and Fuller explain: “This is just the way Universe is playing the game.” Gravity is that invisible limitless tension force. “The Earth and the Moon are invisibly cohered…”; the tension cable has reached the limit case in thinness: it’s nonexistent. “You have enormous tension with no section at all.” A splendid design! The solar system is thus a magnificent tensegrity: discontinuous compression spheres (i.e., planets) are intercoordinated—never touching each other—by a sea of Continuous tension. “Every use of gravity is a use of…sectionless tensioning,” Fuller continues, observing that “this is also true within the atoms: true in the macrocosm and true in the microcosm”

We are also finding tensegrity as Nature’s favorite pattern for biological organization. The human body is a tensegrity. In fact, the human body is a tensegrity of tensegrities.

Donald E. Ingber, MD writes: Life is the ultimate example of complexity at work. An organism, whether it is a bacterium or a baboon, develops through an incredibly complex series of interactions involving a vast number of different components. …

Despite centuries of study, researchers still know relatively little about the forces that guide atoms to self-assemble (synergize) into molecules. They know even less about how groups of molecules join together to create living cells and tissues. Over the past two decades, however, I have discovered and explored an intriguing and seemingly fundamental aspect of self-assembly (synergy). An astoundingly wide variety of natural systems, including carbon atoms, water molecules, proteins, viruses, cells, tissues and even humans and other living creatures, are constructed using a common form of architecture known as tensegrity. The term refers to a system that stabilizes itself mechanically because of the way in which tensional and compressive forces are distributed and balanced within the structure.

This fundamental finding could one day have practical applications in many areas. For example, new understanding of tensegrity at the cellular level has allowed us to comprehend better how cellular shape and mechanical forces—such as pressure in blood vessels or compression in bone—influence the activities of genes. At the same time, deeper understanding of natural rules of self-assembly (synergy) will allow us to make better use—in applications ranging from drug design to tissue engineering—of the rapidly accumulating data we have about molecules, cells and other biological components. An explanation of why tensegrity is so ubiquitous in nature may also provide new insight into the very forces that drive biological organization—and perhaps into evolution itself.

My interest in tensegrity dates back to my undergraduate years in the mid-1970s at Yale University. There my studies of cell biology and also of sculpture led me to realize that the question of how living things form has less to do with chemical composition than with architecture. The molecules and cells that form our tissues are continually removed and replaced; it is the maintenance of pattern and architecture, I reasoned, that we call life.

See: The Architecture of Life by Donald E. Ingber, MD

Stephen M. Levin, MD writes: The structural system of continuous tension, discontinuous compression, hereafter referred to as Tensegrity, and described by Buckminster Fuller, can be used as a model to understand the physiological support systems of the body.

The understanding of tensegrity structures has many distinct advantages when applied to biological systems. These structures are omnidirectional and are stable in any direction and independent of gravity. When applied to animated beings the structural system is maintained whether functioning as a biped or quadriped; prone, supine or standing upside down; on the ground, under water or in a spaceship. The laws of leverage act differently when applied within the tensegrity system so that forces generated are dissipated and may actually strengthen the structure much as prestressed concrete or a wire under tension. External forces applied to the system are dissipated throughout it so that the “weak link” is protected. The forces generated at heelstrike as a 200 pound linebacker runs down the field, for example, could not be absorbed solely by the os calcis but have to be distributed—shock absorber-like—throughout the body.

Does the tensegrity system function in nature? The methane molecule, one of the most basic organic substances, has in itself the physical shape and properties of a tensegrity structure. Examination of radiolaria clearly demonstrates the basic structural model. In higher forms of life, we can examine the scapulothoracic articulation. The entire support system of the upper extremity is a tension system being supported by the musculature interweaving the spine, thorax and upper extremity into a tension support system. The scapula does not press on the thorax. The clavicle has been traditionally recognized as acting more as a compression strut, as it would in a tensegrity model. In fact, in the cat family it is no more than a floating tensegrity strut. Although in humans the upper extremity is not weight-bearing, if we recognize that the same mechanism is used in bearing weight in all quadripeds, then we can readily see that the tension support system is utilized in vertebrates.

See the Biotensegrity website of Stephen M. Levin, MD