A lava lamp’s lurid glow and molten contents made it the quintessential symbol of psychedelic counterculture in the 1960s. The decorative light fixture – not much use as a task light and prone to overheating and burning out – was designed to set a mood rather than provide illumination. Its enduring popularity is down to its simple yet awe-inspiring principle: a goopy mixture of coloured wax and oily liquid flows up and down inside the lamp in the shape of a glowing, molten rock.
Invented by Edward Craven Walker, founder of the company Mathmos, the lamp was originally launched as the Astro lamp in 1963. The premise was based on an egg timer Walker saw in a pub and later improved upon with a design that incorporated two liquids of different densities to create the movement of the globular shapes reminiscent of lava flowing in a volcano.
The chemistry behind the lamp is a trade secret, but it involves heating the fluids in the base of the clear glass cylinder. The wax melts and becomes lighter than the liquid which then floats, rising toward the light bulb. As the wax gets further away from the bulb it cools and becomes denser, sinking back down to re-melt and start the cycle again. It’s like the Sisyphus of home decor.
Lava lamps went on to be a staple in homes, offices and hotels worldwide. Their appearance in the 1968 episode of Doctor Who starring Patrick Troughton and the 1965 British television series The Prisoner further cemented their status as a pop icon. Today Mathmos still makes the iconic lamp in its original factory in Poole, Dorset. It remains a must-have for many households, and even prompted the creation of its own virtual version called the Javalamp in 1992. Lampe a lave