The Mystique of the Lava Lamp Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Mystique of the Lava Lamp

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Lava Lamp

Lava is philosophy. The primordial ooze that once ruled our world has been captured in perpetual motion. Lava is the moment. Its ever-changing patterns hypnotising yet invigorating. Lava is an art form; a classic and at the same time progressive. Lava is prehistoric and post-modern. Lava is here to stay. Lava Lamps, those oozy symbols of spaced-out kitsch1 from the 1960s, are making a comeback around the world (at the time of writing). The original Lava Lamp is a defining and iconic image that is still regarded as a contemporary piece today. This is the history of the quirky little lamp with the uniquely hypnotic light.


Edward Craven-Walker 1918-2000

Born in Singapore, Craven-Walker flew Mosquito aircraft on reconnaissance missions for the Royal Air Force during World War II. Craven-Walker got the idea for the original lamp design after walking into a pub in Hampshire, England and noticing a rather odd item sitting on the counter behind the bar. It was a glass cocktail shaker that contained some kind of mucus-like blob floating in liquid. Upon inquiry, the bartender told him it was an egg-timer. The 'blob' was actually a clump of solid wax in clear liquid. The bartender explained...

You put the shaker in the boiling water with your egg, and as the boiling water cooks the egg it also melts the wax turning it into an amorphous blob of goo.

When the wax then floated to the top of the jar, your egg was done. Craven-Walker saw a money-making opportunity in front of him - turn the egg-timer into a lamp with thicker oil that would form sculptural shapes and sell it to the public. He set about tracking down the inventor of the original design. The inventor, known only by his last name of Dunnet, was deceased, allowing for Craven-Walker to patent the invention for himself.

Craven-Walker spent the next 15 years perfecting Dunnet's invention so that it could be mass-produced. In the meantime, he supported himself by making 'art-house' films about his other passion: nudity2. Travelling Light, one of these so-called 'art-house' films, was the first naturalist film to receive public release in the UK. Described as an underwater ballet, this film was shot off Corsica and was released in 1960.

The Astro Lamp was launched in 1963, just ahead of the craze for all things psychedelic. Craven-Walker's factory was built in Poole, Dorset where it still is in production today. Craven-Walker sold rights to his creation to Mathmos, one of Britain's fastest-growing companies3, staying on as a consultant until his death at age 82 of cancer.

Coming to America - the Lava Brand Motion Lamp

In 1965, Craven-Walker introduced his Astro Lamp at a novelty convention in Hamburg, West Germany. Two Americans named Adolph Wertheimer and Hy Spector, in awe with the lamp's beauty, asked to purchase the American rights to the lamp. The Astro Lamp was then brought to North America and renamed Lava Brand Motion Lamps and production took off in Chicago, Illinois. Lava Brand Motion Lamp sales peaked in the late '60s when slow-swirling coloured wax happened to coincide perfectly with the undulating aesthetics of psychedelia. They were advertised as 'head trips that offered a motion for every emotion'4.

At their peak, more than seven million Lava Lamps were sold around the world each year, but by the early 1970s the fad had run its course and sales fell dramatically. By 1976, sales were down to 200 lamps per week, a mere fraction of what they had been a few years before. By the late 1980s, however, sales began to rebound. As style makes began to ransack the sixties for inspiration, Lava Lamps came back. Formerly dollar-a-piece flea-market finds, original 1960s Lava Lamps (especially those with paisley, pop art or homemade trippy motifs on their bases) became real collectibles in the late 1980s, selling in chic boutiques for more than a brand new one. And speaking of new ones, they weren't hurting for business either. By 1998 manufacturers in England and the United States were selling more than two million of the lamps per year.

A Patented Formula

Although the Lava Lamp was invented in 1963 by Edward Craven-Walker, and patented by his company in 1964, the US Patent dates to 16 March, 1971. There are conflicting records at the US Patent Office that also state that the Lava Lamp was submitted for patent by David George Smith on behalf of Craven-Walker's Crestworth Company in 1968 under the heading 'display devices'. Whichever the case, only the companies that make Lava Lamps know precisely what chemicals are in the lamp and in what combination, making the recipe a trade secret. There are, however, many websites and books offering 'poor man's' versions of the Lava Lamp that you can make at home. It is not recommended attempting any of these formulas, simply because many of the ingredients suggested are flammable and can cause personal injury.

Random Facts

  • Employees take an oath of secrecy upon being hired so that the mystery of the Lava Lamp's inner workings are never revealed.

  • Lava Lamps can be seen almost every night on prime time television.

  • Haggerty Enterprises, Inc is the only official manufacturer of the Lava Brand Motion Lamp in the United States. Mathmos is the only official manufacturer of the Lava Lamp in the UK.

  • More Lava Lamps were sold in the 1990s than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s combined.

  • The Lava Lamp has been hailed an American icon by everyone ranging from People magazine to the Smithsonian Institute.

  • The Lava Brand Century Motion Lamp was the first US style created and the Astro Lamp was the first UK style. Both are still top sellers today.

  • There are over 100 different style and colour combinations of Lava lamps, including glitter motion lamps.

  • The largest Lava Lamp on the market towers over four feet tall and holds ten gallons of the 'secret' formula.

  • No two Lava Lamps are the same. They all have their own personality.

If you buy my lamp, you won't need drugs... I think it will always be popular. It's like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again.
- Craven-Walker

How right were his words.

1(Pronounced 'kich') n. Art or artwork marked by sentimental, often pretentious bad taste.2In those days, pornography was illegal in many places and the only way around the law was by making 'documentaries' (or 'art-house' films) about nudism. Whether Craven-Walker was a genuine nudist or just a pornographer in disguise is open to interpretation.3According to the Top 100 Fastest-growing Companies in the UK list compiled by Virgin Fast Track.4Taken from The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stern.

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