Jack Parsons and Frank Malina: Strange Angel and Sparks of Genius


Jack Parsons and Frank Malina: “Strange Angel” and “Sparks of Genius” for sure (read on for the “sex and rockets” version)

The news is out: wide gratulations at the news that Ars Electronica has awarded the Leonardo network the 2018 Golden Nica to Pioneers in New Media Art:


But today we also share the excitement as Ridley Scott and his team release the first of a TV series called “Strange Angel”.


The TV series is centered on the life of Jack Parsons who was one of my father Frank Malina’s best friends.

And oh yes did you know this clip on Jack Parsons, Frank Malina and Forman by Comedy Central is on the net?

A  student group, yes a collective of hackers and makers including Frank and Jack and Bill ,  started the rocketry experiments that led to the founding of NASA JPL, Aerojet General aerospace company , and the launch of the first human made object into space (Yes Elon Musk- they triggered in the USA the work that led to your “strange” vision- and they did it a stone’s throw from where your company SpaceX is currently headquartered. And you are dreaming the same dreams as the “suicide squad”, as they were called, at Caltech in the 1930s ).

The author of the book “Strange Angel’ on which Ridley Scott’s TV series is based is George Pendle. If you want to hear his version of the story (the film series episodes depart from reality, but then sometimes reality is stranger than fiction): read


And now onto the “sparks of genius”! The term comes from Robert Root-Bernstein, a member of the Leonardo Journal editorial board and prominent artscience researcher. His thinking accurately pin points why strange angels sometimes exhibit sparks of genius. Read :


Indeed, “Strange” Jack Parsons (1) was a follower of Aleister Crowley (2) and was active in the “Thelema” White Magic Cult (3). Also, Jack did have open sexual relations and “weird” parties in his home. (This will come as no surprise to either students of the 60’s or today’s students).

My father recalled singing at one of Jack’s parties Aleister Crowley’s Hymn to Pan (4) with his friend Andrew Haley. Haley later, together with the now former students, set up Aerojet General as a start-up company. And for good measure or paranoia, one of the informants listed in my father’s FBI file is now known to have then been motivated to inform on the group and partygoers to the FBI because his wife had been “spending time” at Jack Parsons’ “weird” parties or whatever else they may really have been.

I dont know whether the FBI of the time was “stranger” than the students !

But my dad had no truck with mysticism or sex rituals. He was an atheist and a positivist, and sexually conservative (to my knowledge) owing to his rural Texas small town upbringing.

Here are two examples of “sparks of genius”: one lit by Jack and one lit by Frank, illustrating  that some “strange” people can have really good ideas.

First Spark: Jack and Frank, a story of rocket fuel inventions…

The way my father used to tell it, he and Jack were working side by side in a Caltech office one weekend. They were having problems with their rockets exploding when they shouldn’t. They were using  a black powder derived from the kind used for millennia in China.

When the rocket body became too big and was stored too long, cracks would develop in the fuel. Thus, when the rocket was lit, the fire would propagate along the cracks of the rocket and would explode right after initial lift-off.

Once, as they were working, Jack was staring out the window. He saw some workmen covering a roof with black tarmac, pouring it and then even-ing it out.

Jack yelled. Aha!

They’re pouring it liquid, and then it solidifies for years! They’ve got a solid roof without cracks for years! Tar is carbon- based. A great fuel!

Thus, they explained the origin and development of their and other new kinds of patented rocket fuel that did not explode.

Their rockets became known as Jet Assisted Take Off Units (JATO) and helped win World War II as they were used as motors which allowed even fully loaded aeroplanes to take off on short runways on islands or ships in the Pacific.

The term “jet” was preferred then, because the word “rocket” was only used by “strange” people. That’s why the NASA JPL is the “Jet” Propulsion Laboratory and not the NASA Rocket Propulsion Laboratory.

Second Spark:

Frank Malina and Father Christmas and Leonardo….

Or Unexpected Consequences: Enabling Hybrids Whose Work Bridges the Arts, Sciences and Technologies

As one story has it, Jack Parsons blew himself up in his kitchen in 1952 while playing with new explosive inventions. While I was growing up – I was born in 1950 –  there were rumors, never substantiated, that the FBI had a hand in it. The world lost a brilliant inventor, a certified hybrid or polymath, who could have continued contributing to world science and engineering, poetry, thought and art.

My father started work as a full time artist in Paris in 1953…after the FBI put an arrest warrant cout for him. All during our childhood, my brother Alan and I were confused, because when we came home from school our father, the scientist and engineer, was painting.

So we thought that’s what scientists did! Soon we were  disabused of our erroneous notion at school when were told we had to choose between being a scientist or an artist . . . .and we understood that my father, who did both, was considered ‘strange’ by our schooling system.

 My father started out with painting landscapes that he knew about and could be seen via scientific instruments such as telescopes and microscopes (he joked that he had tired of painting dead fish, although he did paint some).

The art world in the Fifties was at the time uninterested in these new landscapes opened up by scientific and technical exploration.By 1968 the time was ripe.

Gyorgy Kepes, a refugee from Nazi Germany,  went on to found the Center for Visual Arts at MIT in 1968 and advocated and enabled the work of such artists. Frank Oppenheimer, a close friend of my father’s, also in 1968, opened up the Exploratorium Museum. Also in 1968 Jsaia Reichardt mounted the first art and technology show in England, and E.A.T did “Nine Evenings’.

(Both Georgy and Frank played key roles in ensuring the survival of the LEONARDO JOURNAL after my father Frank Malina died in Paris in 1981.)

Another Aha Moment by a Strange Person- A wrong aha

Then Frank Malina tried to create more interesting visual effects, and started using wires, string and other studio objects. He used cuttings from his beard and nail clippings to create texture in the paint. He found out about the Moire effect. One day he tried to amplify the Moire effect in his mixed media painting by putting a light bulb in it.

After a few minutes he abandoned this idea because the painting started to burn. He understood now why artists didn’t use electricity in their paintings!

A wrong aha ! Not all aha’s are good. You have to train your intuition and gut instinct. Some strange people are good at this. There are even good methods. See Edward De Bono http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php 

A better Spark

The following Christmas, sitting down and enjoying our Christmas tree covered with sparkling Christmas lights (a novelty at the time), Our father, jumped up  suddenly and pulled the Christmas tree lights from the tree.

Now what had my brother and I done, we were upset to lose the christmas tree on christmas night !!

The tree wasn’t burning, was the explanation. Eureka!

Dad put the string of Christmas tree lights in his Moire painting. He went on to include thermal interrupters, bulbs and then electric motors so the lights and images would move, and he built interactive sculptures that reacted to you talking to them. He went on to patent these ideas and founded a started up company called ELI (Electro Lumydine International – which failed).

When he tried to show this work in Paris galleries or museums, he was told, “If you have to plug it in,” it cannot be art.

Adieu. Go away. You are a “strange” artist.

So he rented a small gallery, installed the electrical wiring himself and went on to start selling his “‘kinetic paintings.”’ He sold one to the Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

The FBI agent following him – as we later found out – went to the vernissages for the free wine, but reported back that this ‘alleged’ artist was sending secrets to the Russians via the Communist Paris City Council members – through these “alleged” artworks, somehow, that you had to plug in.

The agent even tried to figure out where the secrets were in the paintings but failed, the FBI agent couldn’t discover them as, clearly, there weren’t any implanted in the electro- art works.

The Paris art critics refused to write about his shows in the 50s. So he tried writing about them himself. He was told “artists are stupid, they do the painting, and the art critics are smart, they do the writing”, a ridiculous  division of labor! He was angered again.

As a research scientist and engineer, he had patented his inventions and written in scientific journals about his scientific discoveries and inventions. His work as a scientist was not writing, but writing about his work was part of how he expressed himself. The science historians and philosophers would analyze his work as a scientist and contextualize it, but at least he had the first word about his own work.

Not so in the art world of the time. Now most artists have web sites where they can express themselves “multi-modally” as they say.

So in the 60s he went on, with a group of artists, scientists, scholars to found the Leonardo Journal.  This is now part of the Leonardo organizations in California ( www.leonardo.info  ) and Paris (www.olats.org). These are important nodes in the growing network of people of ‘strange and hybrid’ people, whose work bridges the arts, sciences and new technologies.

(I sometimes like to call some of them amphibians: in teams, “schools of amphibians” they can make scientific discoveries but also intense works of art. No, we don’t want formal ‘schools’ of amphibians, but we do need to enable them. Institutions hate and expel strange people. But we do need breeding grounds for strange people..)

( I like to call the Leonardo Organisations “intellectual dating’ services, the’Brain-Dr’ of our community) (thanks Robin S… for coming up with the name- now folks lets develop some software  on http://arteca.mit.edu  the new Leonardo platform with  MIT Press!)

( but maybe that dating metaphor connects awkwardly to Jack Parsons strange approach to sparks of genius )( Remember this is a metaphor = and no i don’t agree with jack parsons private life)

The next blog will provide additional insights to the stories behind Ridley Scott’s Strange Angel


And the history of the Leonardo networks and communities and practice documented and advocated through the http://leonardo.info  and http://www.olats.org nodes in the network of networks. We will also discuss the work of the historians who have been publishing and trying to figure out the complex stories that links “strange” people.

Roger Malina with Wolf Rainer


Oh yes, Sex and Rockets


Enough said…:

Read the writings of Ewen Chardronnet, Patrick McCray, Fraser McDonald, Ben Zibit, Fabrice Lapelletrie, Camiller Fremontier, Charissa Terranova to get yet other well researched versions of the stories ! And ead the next blog.


Did you know this clip on Jack Parsons, Frank Malina and Forman by Comedy Central has been on the net?



(1) Jack Whiteside Parsons born Marvel Whiteside Parsons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Parsons_(rocket_engineer):

(2) Aleister Crowley: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleister_Crowley

(3) Thelema philosophic cult: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thelema

(4) Hymn to Pan: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/hymn-to-pan/

(5) Theodore von Karman: The Wind and Beyond: Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space, 1967 Little Brown and Co.


 No- this is not the right story….but it got your attention..As Rachel Mayeri will tell you all primates have similar gut instincts see “strange” movies for monkeys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q23MhgFEX58

Leave a Reply