A lava lamp (or Astro lamp as it was originally know), is a decorative light featuring various colored, oozing blobs of wax that rise and fall in a heated and lighted lamp. The lava lamp was invented by Englishman Edward Craven Walker in 1963 and grew in popularity during the 1960’s psychedelic craze.
Edward Walker Discovers the Blob Light
Edward Walker was a bit of an eccentric. In the 60’s, he founded several nudist colonies and even made a movie, “Bare Essentials”, promoting the nudist lifestyle he so strongly believed in. His eccentricity and ability to spot a good idea when he saw one, allowed him to recognize the possibilities for his lava lamp during an era that was primed and ready for a novel light that produced changing abstract shapes of colored liquid. His idea for the lava lamp came from a “blob light” that he saw at a local pub. The rolling, blobs of colored liquid fascinated Walker and the other bar patrons. The blob light had been created using old tin cans and a glass cocktail shaker containing a mixture of oil and water heated by an incandescent light bulb. The creator of the blob light was another bar patron that had given the light to the bar owner as a gift. Walker asked the bar tender about the creator of the blob light and found that the inventor had since died.
Walker felt he could improve on the blob light, add more color, and improve on the random shapes the lamp developed. He also recognized that the 1960’s counterculture movement, including the use of psychedelic drugs by the nation’s youth, could present a strong demand for such a product. Walker began his company, named Crestworth, in Poole, Dorset, in the United Kingdom. The lamp was originally named Astro signifying its “out of this world” or “high” appearance.
Walker presented the lamp at a Brussels trade show in 1965 where entrepreneur Adolph Wertheimer took notice. Wertheimer also felt the lamps would be perfect fit for the 1960’s counterculture movement. In fact, Walker himself had told Wertheimer, “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need any drugs.”
How it works
A lava lamp consists of a tall, tapered glass body, with a 25 to 40 watt incandescent bulb at the base that heats the water (often mixed with glycerol) contained in the glass body. Included in the water is a mixture of colored wax, created at a specific density that will allow the wax to glob together and rise when heated. The wax may take 30 minutes or longer to heat and expand enough to rise.
When the wax heats, it expands and its density is lowered allowing the wax to rise. When it reaches the top of the container, away from the heated bulb, it cools and slowly falls back to the bottom of the glass container where it begins the cycle anew. There is typically a wire mesh in the bottom of the container that breaks the surface tension of the falling wax and allows it to more easily recombine into a single, unheated blob of wax.
In 1966, Wertheimer and his partner, Hy Spector, purchased the U.S. rights to manufacture and distribute the lava lamps in the United States. The lamps were sold in the U.S. by the new Lava Lite company based at 1650 W. Irving Park Rd in Chicago, Illinois. The original Lava Lamps had a gold base and were filled with yellow or blue liquid and white or red lava. And as both men had predicted, sales of the device soared. During the Lava Lamp craze, over 400,000 Lava Lamps were sold each year (and they continue to sell in high volume today).
In 2004, 24-year-old Phillip Quinn, of Kent, Washington, attempted to heat up a lava lamp on his kitchen stove. The bulb was burnt out and he to see how the device worked at a higher range of heat. The excessive heat built up tremendous pressure in the lamp and it eventually exploded showering shards of glass throughout the room. One piece of glass passed through Quinn’s chest and pierced his heart causing fatal injuries. It is rumored that a man suffered a similar fate under similar circumstances in 1992.