Frank Malina’s Cosmos

Frank J. Malina had three careers. His first, the one he is best known for – but not nearly well enough – was as an aeronautical engineer. Although Werner von Braun received the press attention and Time magazine covers, it was the American-born Malina who researched and developed the U.S.’s first space-capable rockets.1


Malina, handsome as a young man, Caltech days.

Jules Verne’s classic book De la Terre à la Lune inspired Malina to think seriously about space exploration. He read the book in Czech when his family relocated from Texas back to Europe when he was a young teen. After returning to the U.S., he attended Texas A&M as an undergraduate – he paid for his tuition, in part, by bugling reveille to the student body – before a graduate fellowship brought him to Caltech in 1934. He stayed in Pasadena for 13 years, designing and building rockets and the motors that propelled them. Then project started small – the original team is shown below – but, driven by wartime concerns, expanded quickly into a multi-million dollar effort employing scores of people.

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Iconic image of the early American space program. 1936 – Malina – third from left – with other members of the Caltech rocket project at the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. A rocket engine test stand is behind them.

While based at Caltech, Malina worked under the tutelage of Hungarian-born research engineer Theodore von Kármán who became his close friend and business partner – the two of them helped start a soon-to-be-very-profitable company called Aerojet. The two engineers also started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with Malina serving briefly as the lab’s first director.

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Malina, left, with von Kármán, 1961.

The apogee of Malina’s rocket career happened at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The site was close to where Robert Goddard had once tested his rockets and, more ominously, only about 70 miles from where the U.S. Army had exploded the Trinity device three months earlier. Malina visited the Trinity site, in fact, soon after the test and the experience sobered him about the realities of future wars.

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Malina (left) with the WAC-Corporal, 1945.

In October 1945 at White Sands, a yellow and black sounding rocket called the WAC-Corporal roared from a launch pad.2  Radar tracked it as it soared to about 230,000 feet. Malina’s rocket was the highest a human-made object had flown to date and also the first vehicle to escape the confines of the earth’s atmosphere.

Despite technical accomplishments and considerable military interest, the deepening ideological tensions of the Nuclear Age distressed Malina. Ironically, the success of Aerojet, catalyzed by Cold War funding and military demands, would also make him quite wealthy, free, in fact, to pursue other more peaceful paths. In a few short years after 1946, he left Caltech, moved to Paris, got divorced, and remarried. A strong believer in international cooperation, Malina also joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), eventually becoming head of its Division of Scientific Research.

Malina could not escape the Cold War, however, and its McCarthy-era suspicions. He had colleagues at Caltech with pink, if not red, pasts and his own FBI file was of considerable heft. Government harassment coupled with financial independence prompted him to quit the UNESCO post in 1953 and start a new career as an artist.


Malina in his studio, a few years after he transitioned to being a profession artist.

In this, Malina resembles another Frank – Frank Oppenheimer. Younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank O’s encounters with the national hysteria state were much more severe. After losing his post at the University of Minnesota, the younger Oppenheimer wandered the wilderness, literally, before reinventing himself as the founder of the Exploratorium, an innovative art-science institution, in 1968.

Malina had long been interested in art – his parents were both professional musicians – and he put himself through school by sometimes doing engineering drawings. Malina started his new career with traditional painting and quickly secured a one-man show at a Paris gallery. Less enthused about painting as a medium, around 1955, he turned his attention to making light-based and kinetic art works.3


Malina in his studio, circa 1957.

Malina was especially keen to introduce material from science and technology, particularly space exploration and astronomy, into contemporary visual arts. Even his early forays into painting incorporated “shock waves and fluid flow and paintings of airplanes and rockets.” As he moved away from traditional art techniques, Malina spent considerable time experimenting with new ways to create novel visual effects. In the mid-1950s, for example, Malina worked with a French electronics student to create what he called his Lumidyne technique. He made his first pieces using it in 1956.

Lumidyne, which Malina described in scientific-like style in journal articles as well as patent applications in the U.S., France, and the U.K., gave him a systematic approach to making art using movement and light.

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Illustration from one of Malina’s patents for Lumidyne.

The Lumidyne system was based on several interrelated parts: Light bulbs and electric motors were fixed to a wooden backboard. There were moving parts, which Malina called “rotors”, made of Plexiglas that he painted and connected to a motor. Fixed pieces of Plexiglas – the “stators” – were also painted. These parts were sandwiched between the backboard and a diffuser screen that faced the viewer.

When switched on, a shifting subtle effect was created by the painted parts moving slowly in concert with the static pieces with light shining through them. The title of a 1961 patent application describes the resulting visual effect with Malina’s characteristic terse style: “Lighted, Animated, and Everchanging Picture Arrangement.” As was the case with his other techniques, the titles and topics of his art works using Lumidyne reflected his persistent engagement with scientific and space themes. The Arc, Orbiter, Sun Sparks, and Jodrell Bank are among the nearly 200 works Malina made using his Lumidyne system before he passed away in 1981.

Voterx and 3 Molecules (1965)

Still image of Malina’s Vortex and 3 Molecules (1965)

In 1965, the flamboyant millionaire (and socialist MP) Robert Maxwell commissioned Malina to make a statement piece for the entrance lobby of his company, Pergamon Press, a fast-growing British publisher of scientific journals based on Oxford. The result was a massive lumino-kinetic work Malina called Cosmos. Weighing several hundred pounds, Cosmos’ sheer size –over 70 square feet – commanded the attention of Pergamon’s visitors and staff.

1965 Malina CosmosMalina began crafting Cosmos with sketches in his Paris workshop in the spring of 1965. A video has even survived which captures the process. Aided by a few technical assistants – the whole team signed their names inside the piece – Malina completed Cosmos in early July.

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Signatures inside Cosmos

Two dozen moving rotors slowly turned each of the rotor parts painted by Malina slowly. 120 fluorescent tubes and light bulbs lit up the work. All of this was encased in a relatively thin wood and metal frame.  When Malina had achieved the visual effects he wanted, the entire piece was disassembled and shipped to Oxford for a week-long installation at Pergamon’s building. And it’s still there today…

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Installing Cosmos at Pergamon, 1965.

In September 2015, I went to Oxford to see Malina’s Cosmos. It’s not an easy thing to do. Pergamon is no longer in business, Robert Maxwell is dead, and the building housing Cosmos is now part of Oxford Brookes University. The artwork resides in a small room, partitioned off from the original main lobby. It’s used – from what I could tell – as a storage place for the campus radio station. Since it’s in a locked room on a private campus, I needed help getting access. Roger Malina, Frank’s son, put me in touch with Chris Jennings, an art professor at Brookes. Jennings knew the right people with the right keys and after a heroic effort with little advance notice, he met me at Brookes’ gate on a grey windy afternoon lightly whipped by rain.

Imposing even when turned off, Cosmos is hardly recognizable at first as an art work. An electrician from campus came to switch Cosmos on for us. The lights switched on and immediately the many small electrical motors inside began to turn the painted rotors. For such a giant mechanical piece, it was surprisingly quiet. All I heard was the slight hum of fluorescent lights and an occasional click as one of the gears proved momentarily obstinate.

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Interior detail.

Frank Malina made Cosmos at the height of the Cold War-era space race. Gagarin and Shephard had flown four years earlier and a satellite-based infrastructure was beginning to take shape. Astronomers were looking forward to an era of space telescopes observing across wavelengths inaccessible from earth and giving unparalleled resolution. This new techno-scientific activity meant that people were, as Malina wrote in 1966, “more conscious of the universe, both intellectually and visually” than at any other time since the Copernican Revolution. Malina imagined Cosmos as a reflection of a universe that he knew as neither static nor quiescent.

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Malina making Cosmos, summer 1965.

The controlled motion of light and motion reflected a view of an orderly Cosmos, however, one knowable to humans who were slowly starting to explore it. Malina abstracted his design from celestial shapes starting with the band of color at the bottom which Malina intended to represent colors seen by astronauts when orbiting the earth. Nine painted circular shapes represent the planets – Neil deGrasse Tyson & co. hadn’t yet killed Pluto – which hover below an abstracted sun presented in slowly changing shades of red, white, and orange.

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Cosmos, detail.

Sitting between the sun and planets are three “nebulae,” executed in a manner similar to some of Malina’s earlier works – filaments of light moving back and forth. Finally, above the sun are scattered star clusters, another theme from Malina’s prior pieces, that slowly oscillate and pulse. The overall effect is elegant, continuous yet stately motion and shifting color.

Malina wanted the piece to be an “expression of a ‘peaceful Cosmos’” while noting, of course, that the universe is anything but. “Events of cataclysmic proportion are constantly occurring” yet people were still willing to dare to “venture forth farther and farther” from the “planetary cradle,” he wrote. This profound shift in position and perspective was something that should challenge the artist. Either they would “find aesthetic significance” in explorations of space or “mock them in despair.”

We also opened up Cosmos to inspect its interior. 1960s-era lights and switches share space with parts added during occasional repairs and upgrades. Malina had signed the various rotors and stators that he painted.

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Looking inside Cosmos.

But their paint is beginning to flake and peel, presenting a challenge to the art conservator. And few of the rotors weren’t turning well.

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One of the signed parts of Cosmos

The complexity of the art work – an ensemble of gears, chains, lights, switches, fuses, plastic disks, with wires running everywhere – surprised me. Compared with the quiet, contemplative mood the piece fosters, the inside of Cosmos is a very busy place.

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Author inside Cosmos, September 2015.

Malina created Cosmos as “silent almost static” panoramic view of the universe centered around our solar system. I stood in front of it for several minutes, watching the colors slowly form, dissolve, move, and shift. I took some last photos. And then, a flick of the switch and Cosmos was dark again.

  1. MG Lord’s excellent book Astro Turf discusses the historical injustice of a former Nazi getting the attention while American Malina’s accomplishments were sidelined during the McCarthy era. []
  2. “WAC” stood for “Without Any Control” or, since it was the “little sister” of the larger Corporal rocket, which followed an earlier rocket named Private, “Women’s Auxiliary Corps.” []
  3. A catalog, compiled by Fabrice Lapelletrie, of Malina’s artwork is here. []

Shifting Gears and Changing Rooms

(Bloggy Note: I recently appeared on the radio show Science Friday. Host Ira Flatow and I spoke about the history of another collaborative artist/engineer effort. This was the Art and Technology Program that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ran from 1966-1971. After a 50 year hiatus, LACMA has recently rebooted the program. Although very different from the original incarnation, the new program brings artists, engineers, and corporate sponsorship together to jumpstart aesthetic experimentation. This seemed like a good coming out party for a new research project I’m starting…)

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in collaborations between artists, engineers, and scientists from the 1960s onward. Regular readers of this blog will have noticed the recent posts about laser art in its various formsDNA origami, and so forth.

I’m planning on exploring the art-technology/artist-engineer nexus further for a new book project. It’s exciting as well as challenging/intimidating. There’s a huge amount of art history to get a handle on. But I think that every so often, it’s good to take one’s research in a brand new direction…and my timing is good. Starting in a few weeks, I have the good fortune to hold the Charles Lindbergh Chair at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. This will give me a good opportunity to jump start this project.

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Frank Malina , engineer of space and art.

While serving as the Lindbergh Chair, I want to examine the “art and technology movement” by focusing on the experiences and activities of engineers and scientists. One of the main topics I’ll be researching while in DC are the activities of the American rocket engineer turned artist Frank J. Malina.

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Malina (center) with Theodore von Kármán, 1941

Prior to the U.S. entry into World War Two, Malina helped develop and test nascent rocket technologies in the dry arroyos of Pasadena. After the war, Malina helped get the Jet Propulsion Laboratory off the ground. However, Malina became disenchanted displeased with the pursuit of advanced rocket technologies for military purposes. (M.G. Lord’s super book Astro-Turf highlights the historical hypocrisy of former Nazi Werner von Braun being seen all too often as the “father” of the U.S. space program while home-grown heroes like Malina are neglected.)

Malina left California for France where he joined the Division of Scientific Research for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Malina could not, however, escape Cold War allegations of Communist associations and he quit his UNESCO post in 1953. Long interested in art, it was at this point that Malina decided to pursue it as a full-time career.

It is Malina’s career path after this point that especially interests me. After first experimenting with more conventional media, Malina turned to more experimental tools and technologies. Malina’s experiments with kinetic, audio, and electronic art depicted the new landscapes that rapid advances in Cold War science and technology – exemplified by the Bomb, the rocket, the computer – revealed. The launch of the first satellites and then the first people into space profoundly influenced Malina and his art. “Because of man’s first steps in exploring extraterrestrial space,” he wrote in 1966, “we are more conscious of the universe, both intellectually and visually.”

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Malina at work in his Paris studio, c. 1965.

In 1968, with backing from controversial British publishing tycoon, Robert Maxwell, owner of Pergamon, Malina launched the journal Leonardo. It’s still published today.Malina imagined the journal as a forum in which humanists and scientists could communicate and collaborate. Malina made it a point to emphasize that Leonardo was neither about art criticism or aesthetics (he disparaged both often and Leonardo included no advertisements for dealers or galleries).

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Some space-themed covers of Leonardo

Instead, the focus was on the process of creating art. Under Malina’s editorial guidance, the early volumes of Leonardo provided a forum for artists, scientists, and engineers to interact and collaborate. Malina purposely adopted the format of scientific journals and published articles by artists and scientists that described their artistic experiments with digital computers, cybernetics, holography, and lasers.  Malina often approached the creation of art as an experiment that could be amenable to research, something which makes a perspective from a historian of science especially useful.

Looking more broadly, artist-engineer collaborations were seen as experiments in creativity that could benefit the art world as well as industry and university labs. For engineers, subject to vociferous attacks about their complicity in the arms race, environmental destruction, and other global ills, the art and technology movement presented them with an opportunity to humanize technology and re-define their profession, if only on a personal level.

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Artist Robert Whitman (left) with engineer John Forkner, c. 1969, as they collaborated on the Art and Technology Program that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ran.

I’m hoping this new project shifts the focus from the artists by giving more attention to their under-recognized partners in collaboration – engineers and scientists. Many of the artists these professionals worked with were big names in the modern art world. But art critics largely ignored the technologists who partnered with star artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman, or John Cage. These accomplished engineers and scientists from elite institutions like Caltech, MIT, or Bell Labs were typically reduced to “invisible technicians” doing the artists’ bidding. I want to bring the engineers and scientists, who were central to the era’s artistic collaborations, to the foreground.

I’m super excited to be starting work on this new project. Malina’s papers are at archived at the Library of Congress so I’ll be parked there for many days, slowly making my way through the collection. Per aspera ad astra

The Pipe Dreams of Physicists

“[F]rom all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.” (Anglican Book of Common Prayer)

In 1972 London’s Birkbeck College invited British-born physicist Freeman J. Dyson to give the school’s annual Bernal Lecture. The lecture series was named after John Desmond Bernal, an Irish crystallographer and molecular biologist. For his lecture topic, Dyson decided to revisit Bernal’s visionary 1929 book about the future called The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

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Dyson in 1972

Bernal’s book gave a succinct exploration of how radical new technologies could help society confront what he called the “three enemies of the rational soul.” Bernal’s first and foremost foe was the World. To transcend the limits of terrestrial resources and the unpredictability of the planet’s environment, he proposed that people expand into the cosmos. In permanent free-floating settlements, “free communication and voluntary associations of interested persons” would prevail, liberating people from earthly traditions and values. To thrive in these new environments, people would be obliged to “interfere in a highly unnatural manner” with the Flesh. For Bernal, this first meant radical surgery, the replacement of organs and tissues with mechanical substitutes, and then the eventual modification of people’s genetic material. However, the Devil, which Bernal defined as our “desires and fears…imaginations and stupidities,” remained a treacherous foe for people who wanted to actively engineer their future.

Dyson, like Bernal, had a long-standing interest in the technological future. But his reputation as a physicist was based on his theoretical work on the fundamentals of how light and matter interact at the quantum level. After coming to the U.S. in 1947, he studied physics at Cornell, O’Neill’s alma mater. A year later, physicist Robert Oppenheimer recruited Dyson to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

After Sputnik’s launch in 1957, Dyson took a break from theoretical physics to help design Project Orion, an proposed interplanetary spaceship that would be propelled forward by nuclear explosions. As bizarre as such an effort might seem today, military and NASA funding helped the Orion team build a small (non-nuclear) test version of their space exploration machine. However, the signing of the limited test ban treaty in 1963 and dwindling Air Force interest contributed to Orion’s cancellation in 1965 even though Dyson and others had contributed years of serious design and engineering work.1

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Schematic or Orion, the atom-bomb powered spaceship. (Source)

In his 1972 lecture, Dyson gave an assessment of Bernal’s futuristic ideas (the text of his lecture is here.) He concluded Bernal had been largely on target.2 People had gone into space, artificial organ transplants were now possible, molecular biology was an established field, and knowledge about the workings of the human brain had grown greatly. Even when it came to the Devil, Dyson found Bernal on the mark. In 1972, just as in 1929, there was a “highly vocal and well-organized opposition” to the “further growth of technology” as irrational “social prophets” depicted it as a “destructive rather than liberating force.”

In his lecture, Dyson went on to use Bernal’s slim book as a springboard for his own predictions. He suggested that new technologies must be harnessed as allies in the struggle against resource scarcity, overpopulation, and other planetary ills. For example, biological engineering could design novel organisms that could convert “wastes efficiently into usable solids and pure water.” Inorganic “self-reproducing machinery,” analogous to coral and oysters, could collect minerals from the ocean and be another ally in the “attack on Bernal’s three enemies.” Besides ameliorating life on earth, radical bio-engineering could also enable the colonization of space. New life forms such as “Big Trees,” as Dyson called them, could be engineered to grow on comets which had ample amounts of water and nitrogen. The result might be the “greening of the Galaxy” as settlers transformed space into habitable oases.

The success of the Apollo era helped shape Dyson’s thinking about the technological future. So did his experiences as a father. His trials as a parent became public knowledge in 1978 with the appearance of popular book written by Kenneth Brower, son of Sierra Club founder David Brower. The Starship and the Canoe chronicled the tensions between the famous physicist who worked at the intersection of science and the military – Freeman Dyson regularly advised on national security issues – and his rebellious son.

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The book’s narrative eloquently juxtaposed Freeman’s desire to build nuclear-powered spacecraft and live in space with those of his son, George, who was building a giant ocean-going kayak while residing in a towering Douglas fir tree in British Columbia.

Dyson had a kindred spirit in thinking about settlements in space. His neighbor was Princeton University physicist and space colony popularizer Gerard O’Neill. Dyson and O’Neill agreed on the merits of human settlements in space, but they differed as to what this humanization of space might look like. “Your standardized prefab communities have a bureaucratic quality which repels me,” Dyson wrote O’Neill. Although “my pipe dreams are different from yours,” Dyson noted that the planet needs “many dreamers and many dreams” from which “fate will make her choice.” Despite their differing views about how the humanization of space might happen, Dyson recalled that his Princeton neighbor revitalized his interest in space exploration.

Years later, O’Neill was dying from leukemia. But he was still thinking of visionary technologies – in this case a plan for a super-speed train system called VSE (for velocity, silence, and efficiency). When he was too sick to travel to Washington, DC to present it to scientists at the Department of Energy, Dyson literally gave him a hand, taking O’Neill’s plans to the Capital. As he told me an email, “I was desperately sad because I loved both the idea of VSE and Gerry O’Neill, and I knew that both were dying.” O’Neill passed away a few weeks later.

  1. George Dyson, Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship, 1957-1965 (New York: Allen Lane Science, 2002). []
  2. Dyson’s lecture was published as Freeman J. Dyson, “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” in Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, edited by Carl Sagan (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1972), 370-89. []