Most of the time, those ideas we get while drinking At the bar don’t work out. This one did. It has even ascended to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to illustrate how molten rock behaves. The lava lamp has gone from an egg timer to a kitsch piece of interior decor to a design icon.
Yes, egg timer, but perhaps that bit needs some explanation. Many years ago (1948, actually), in an English pub, former World War II Royal Air Force pilot Edward Craven-Walker looked over the rim of his pint glass and saw a strange contraption behind the bar. It was a glass cocktail shaker containing a blob of wax suspended in liquid. The barman explained it was an egg timer. Put the shaker in a pan of boiling water with an egg, and once the wax had melted and risen, the egg was cooked. The man who originally came up with the idea (Alfred Dunnett) was conveniently dead, leaving Craven-Walker to take out a patent in his own name.
For the next 15 years, when he wasn’t making films extolling the virtues of naturism (a naturalist goes around in a safari suit, a naturist has just a birthday suit; it’s a distinction worth making), Craven-Walker developed his waxy egg timer, changing it into a lamp and working out the correct ingredients for the liquid and the gooey stuff, which are still trade secrets (although polyethylene glycol and carbon tetrachloride are said to be involved).
He may not have known it, but Craven-Walker was playing with a physical law known as the Rayleigh-Taylor Instability. It’s all to do with the interaction of fluids of different densities. The wax heats up, becomes thinner and lighter than the other liquid in the lamp, rises to the top, cools, gets heavier and sinks down to where it meets the heat from a 40-watt bulb. “It’s like the cycle of life,” said Craven-Walker. “It grows, breaks up, falls down then starts all over again.”
Known initially as the Astro Lamp (indeed, there are some lamps made to look exactly like the kind of space rockets seen in old comics), Craven-Walker’s creation came out in 1963. He set up a company, Crestworth, and a factory on England’s south coast. Luck was on his side, because a new generation had just coined the term “psychedelic” and loved a bit of exotic morphing “lava.” Craven-Walker also said: “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need drugs.”
At a 1965 Hamburg trade fair, American businessmen Adolph Wertheimer and William Rubinstein hammered out a licensing deal with Craven-Walker to make and sell the lava lamp in the United States, establishing a base in Chicago. With that particular American disregard for spelling, it was renamed the Lava Lite. Chances are that people who bought the lamp might also have acquired some illicit substances and dug the mesmeric effect, since the lava lamp hit a global sales peak of seven million a year.
Lava lamps inspire a kind of devotion. One fan, Patrick McAleer, had his lamp accompany him on military duty in Vietnam, kept one through law school and lost another in a divorce. Just like the wax inside, though, things cooled off, and the lava lamp’s popularity sank as the ’70s gave way to the “we’re so stylish” ’80s. The English factory eventually slowed to producing just a couple of hundred a week. But the heat of a good design and another generation of substance users sparked a rebirth.
Enter 22-year-old Cressida Granger, purveyor of antiques and bric-a-brac in Camden Market, where all the black-clad, guyliner-wearing north London hipsters would congregate on a Sunday. This was late in the mullet decade, the era of the second summer of love and Ecstasy-fueled raves. Old lava lamps were being snapped up, so Granger went in search of Craven-Walker, bought the rights from him, ramped up production at the same old plant and started selling hundreds of thousands.
In the United States, plans to build a 60-foot lava lamp on the shore of Soap Lake in Washington, that were once put on hold during tougher economic times, have since been dusted off and revitalized. It really is the cycle of life. Maybe that’s the real appeal, that it speaks to us on a fundamental level. Perhaps we should all get a lava lamp to remind us that what goes up comes down, but can easily go back up again.