Lava lamps are among the oddest looking yet most entrancing kinds of lights on the market. Although they were a hugely popular fad in the 1970s, they never completely faded out of interest. Today, lava lamps are sold at numerous stores for varying prices (some sell for under $10) and come in a wide array of shapes and colors. Although almost everyone knows what a lava lamp is, few know the background history of how these strange pieces of furniture came into existence.
As unlikely as it might sound, lava lamps were invented by a British accountant named Edward Craven-Walker (1918-2000). Edward got the idea to make a lava lamp in 1963 when he encountered a homemade egg timer. According to legend, Edward went into a Dorset pub one night and noticed an egg timer that was set upon a stove and made out of a cocktail shaker and bubbling liquids. According to the pub owner, a regular customer named Alfred Dunnett had made the egg timer and gave it to the pub as a gag gift. By the time Edward saw the device Alfred was already dead. However, Edward was so charmed by the little egg timer that he decided to work on perfecting its concept and turning it into a lamp.
Edward set up a lab in a small shed and began mixing ingredients together in attempt to find the perfect combination of substances. He used a Tree Top Orange Squash container as the lamp’s bottle (due in part to its very unusual shape) and wax and water for its contents. The “lava” part of the lamp is actually wax that melts when a light is turned on underneath it and makes it flow upwards. The clear liquid part of lava lamps is usually water or mineral oil. Both the wax and the water (or oil) of a lava lamp can be dyed so the lamps come in a seemingly endless array of colors.
After he perfected his lamp, Edward named it the “Astro Baby Lamp” or simply the “Astro Mini.” He patented his design in 1965. Then he and his wife, Christine, set up a company called Crestworth that was located in Poole, Dorset, England. The company was enormously successful throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s and lava lamps became symbolic of the hippie movement and the psychedelic counter culture. Interestingly, they were also very popular among children so they proved to have a broader market than was initially expected. Lava lamps started to fall out of style by the 1980s and, although Crestworth still operated, it was at a much smaller level. In 1992, the company changed its name to Mathmos.
Although lava lamps reached their popularity peak in the 1970s, they are still beloved and widely sold today. In fact, Mathmos lava lamps are still made in the original Dorset factory (see video)! Edward Craven-Walker died in 2000 but his invention lives on and continues to inspire and delight eons of people all over the world.