Geodesic Dome

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The Rhodes College Geodesic Dome (or more precisely, Sphere) has been a landmark on the Rhodes College campus for almost 30 years. It was constructed in the Fall of 1974 by students enrolled in a Freshman Colloquium under the direction of Mathematics Professor Jack Russell. The original construction was of a dome set on five cement pylons; the Dome/Sphere was completed to a full sphere the following summer. 

(An "urban legend" has grown up around the sphere. Supposedly a group of Chemistry students challenged a group of Physics students to build the sphere. The Physics students did construct it, and then rolled the sphere from Rhodes Tower (the location of the Physics department) to its current location next to Kennedy Hall (the location of the Chemistry department). While interesting, this story is not true!)

Years of exposure to the elements led to peeled paint, rusted bolts and a dull look. In 2002 Professor Gottlieb, with input from students in AfterMath, initiated the renovation of the Dome.  The renovation was started in the Fall of 2002 and completed at the start of Summer, 2003.

The Original Construction

The Geodesic Dome was constructed by students in a Freshman Colloquium under the direction of Professor Jack Russell. Charlie Richards (′78), a student in that Colloquium, describes its construction (with other comments) in the September, 1999 newsletter:
"Dr. Russell began with a circle, a triangle, and trigonometric functions. He extrapolated to three dimensions, deriving everything we needed to design a geodesic dome. Within two minutes I was lost, but I did not let on. I aped my fellow students by scribbling in my notebook, rubbing my chin, frowning, and nodding a lot. This strategy supported me not only through this theoretical portion of the colloquium on geodesic domes, but for the next two years across many disciplines.

"Our class selected the style of dome we would build. Using our new Texas Instruments TI-35 calculators (′four-bangers with trig functions′), we calculated strut lengths and quantities. Dr. Russell suggested the appropriate tubing for the struts and sized the bolts, nuts, and washers for the vertices. Looking ahead to the manufacturing phase, he made allowances for the “Squash Factor,” the elongation a tube undergoes when it is flattened, and for the “Fudge Factor," which allows for the fact that the best laid plans drift out of specification. In our case, we needed to cut a strut or two to fit the accumulated error.

After all the planning, it was time to roll up our sleeves, drag out the hammers, anvils, paint, drills, and let fly. We cut the tubes to length, squashed one end and drilled the bolt hole, then squashed, measured, and drilled the other end. We bent the strut ends to a template giving the correct calculated angle to intersect other struts. We “tagged” the struts, spotting the ends with paint, a color code allowing us to match ends on assembly day. I recall fondly the clanging of pipes, the whining of saws and pipe drills, and the smell of hot metal and oil.

"I remember the day we assembled the dome only as cloudy, overcast, brisk, raw, black and white. The concrete forms that lifted the dome off the ground had been poured and were ready. The struts were stacked and color-coded. Bushels of nuts, bolts, and washers were heaped on the ground. There was no lack of help; many of our fellow students turned out for the dome’s assembly. I remember handshakes, photos, and returning to Glassell Hall to get ready for Saturday dinner.

"Today’s sphere is not the first version of the dome; the original was hemispherical. It was mounted about 3 feet above the ground, some of its lower vertices bolted to steel struts protruding from cement pylons of Dr. Russell’s design. On its own, the dome could withstand the stress of 1,000 elephants climbing across its struts. However, the mountings to the pylon provided the structure’s weakest point. It was at this weak point the dome could not bear the weight of a single undergraduate scrambling to its top.

Time after time, a Sunday dawn would bring a broken dome, struts bent at their attachment to the pylons. A sign “PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB DOME” discouraged few. The only solution was to complete the dome to its full sphere the following summer. The strategy worked. Many may still climb the structure unnoticed, but the sphere has held firm to the form you see today.

"The plaque describing the work disappeared at one time. Who would desire such a prize but wayward student mathematician or engineer? Perhaps the property was too hot to pawn (how many other geodesic domes in Memphis?) or too obscure in value. Perhaps the thief turned repentant. In any case, it was eventually restored to its proper place.

"I find it remarkable that the dome is still there, nestled among the familiar prospect of the quad in a view that has not changed in 25 years. From my experience, I would have expected our college to have fled to the suburbs and 2000 N. Parkway to be converted to a Midtown Mall. The fact that it has not is remarkable and worthy of contemplation. This steadfastness of architecture and grounds and the dome gives us anchor in a world that sometimes seems beyond anyone’s control."