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The History of Lava Lamps

Craven Walker - How Lava Lamps Work

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Craven Walker with lava lamp

Craven Walker with lava lamp

Mary Bellis
"...starts from nothing, grows possibly a little bit feminine, then a little bit masculine, then breaks up and has children. It's a sexy thing." - Craven Walker

Singapore-born inventor Craven Walker was having a pint in post W.W.II England. The pub's decor included a fascinating lamp, which Craven Walker described as a "contraption made out of a cocktail shaker, old tins and things." It was to become the starting point and inspiration for Craven Walker's design.

The liquid-filled inventor proceeded to purchase the equally liquid-filled lamp, whose creator (Mr. Dunnett) Walker later discovered had died. Walker became determined to make a better version of the novelty item and spent the next decade and a half doing so (inbetween running an international house-swap agency and making films about nudism.) Walker worked on improving the lamp with his company the Crestworth Company of Dorset, England.

Initially local retail merchants thought his lamps were ugly and disgusting. Luckily, for Craven Walker the "Psychedelic Movement" and the "Love Generation" came to dominate 60's merchandising in Great Britain and sales of the lava lamp soared. It was the perfect light for modern times, Walker declared. "If you buy my lamp, you won't need to buy drugs."

Craven Walker perfected a secret Lava recipe of oil, wax and other solids. The original model had a large gold base with tiny holes to simulate starlight, and a 52 oz. globe that contained red or white Lava and yellow or blue liquid. He marketed the lamp in Europe under the name of Astro Lamp. Two American entrepreneurs saw the lava lamp displayed at a German trade show and bought the rights to manufacture the lava lamp in North America under the name Lava Lite lamp.

Before selling his company, sales of the lamps had exceeded seven million units. Today with over 400,000 lava lamps made each year, the Lava Lamp is enjoying a comeback. Craven Walker's originally company, the Crestworth Company, changed names to Mathmos in 1995 (a reference to the bubbling force in Barbarella.) They still manufacture the Astro, Astro Baby, and more Lava Lamps in their original home of Poole, Dorset, UK.

How the Basic Lava Lamp Works - Parts

Base: Holds a 40 watt frosted appliance light bulb inside a reflecting cone. This cone rests on a second cone, which houses the light bulb socket and electrical cord connection. The electrical cord has a small in-line switch on it and a standard US 120v plug.

Lamp: A glass container containing two fluids, called water and lava, both trade secrets. A metal cap seals the top of the lamp. There is a small amount of air at the very top of the lamp. Loose at the bottom of the lamp is a small coil of wire called the element.

Top Cap: A small plastic cover over the top of the lamp which serves to both hide the lamp's inner cap and the waterline.

  • When turned off and cold, the lava is a hard lump at the bottom of the glass container and can barely be seen.
  • The turned on light bulb heats both the element and the lava.
  • Lava expands with heat, becomes less dense than the water, and rises to the top. Away from the heat, the lava cools and becomes denser than the water and falls.
  • The lava at the bottom reheats and begins to rise all over again and as long as the lamp is on, the lava keeps flowing in pleasing up-and-down waves.
  • Initially lamps require a warm-up period of about 30 minutes to melt the lava before going into full motion.
Today's modern lava lamp use Borosilicate glass that can withstand quick extremes in temperature.

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