Lava Lamp

A 1960’s symbol still popular today

April 5, 2022

Perhaps one of the most iconic images of the 1960’s, the Lava Lamp was patented on April 4, 1963. Two years later – in a very sixtyish style on April 5th,  the day after, the actual patent – was declared as National Lava Lamp day.

1960’s ad for lava lamps

Much beloved by teens of the 60’s and 70’s, the lamp – unlike plaid bell bottoms, Nehru jackets, and Twiggy’s haircut – has found new fans in subsequent generations.

The Lava Lamp got its beginnings in the early 1960’s. From the Infallible Wikipedia we learn:

“British entrepreneur Edward Craven Walker had the idea for the lava lamp in 1963 after watching a homemade egg timer, made from a cocktail shaker filled with liquids, as it bubbled on a stovetop in a pub. He hired British inventor David George Smith to develop the device and the chemical formula it required. Smith is credited as the inventor on the original U.S. Patent 3,387,396 for a ‘Display Device’ filed and assigned to Craven-Walker’s company in 1965, and subsequently issued in 1968. Craven Walker’s company, Crestworth, was based in Poole, Dorset, United Kingdom. He named the lamp ‘Astro’ and had variations such as the ‘Astro Mini’ and the ‘Astro Coach’ lantern.” 

For most of us, the details of who invented it are – likely – not of a great deal of interest. But my geeky side IS curious as to the technology behind the lamps. It turns out that it is the combination of two different materials that, when exposed to heat, cause the instantly recognizable function of the lava lamp.

Lava Lamp inventor

The material used to make the colored ‘lava’ originally consisted of mineral oil, paraffin wax, and carbon tetrachloride. This was suspended in water. The difference in how the wax/oil and the water heated is what caused the wax/oil to do what it does. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Common wax has a density much lower than that of water and would float on top at any temperature. However, carbon tetrachloride is denser than water (also nonflammable and miscible with wax) and is added to the wax to make its density at room temperature slightly higher than that of the water. When heated, the wax mixture becomes less dense than the water, because it expands more than water when both are heated. It also becomes fluid, causing blobs of it to ascend to the top of the lamp. There, they cool, increasing their density relative to that of the water, and descend.  A metallic wire coil in the bottle’s base breaks the cooled blobs’ surface tension, allowing them to recombine.”

Over the years, the wax ingredients have been replaced since one of the early ingredients proved to have toxicity which caused challenges if the glass jar was broken. 

But enough of the geeky details. For those who wish to learn more there is a link below.

I cannot recall the first time I saw a lava lamp. But I do know when I first lived in a place with one. When I moved into the hubby’s apartment after our marriage I became the defacto half owner of a lava lamp. Now, in a custody battle for the lamp I would have, no doubt, lost, since he owned it before we got married. Thankfully that custody battle has been avoided!

But over the years, the lava lamp has gone from being on display in our living room to being in our bedroom to living on a shelf in my office. But that was only until our eldest child discovered the lamp and it soon took up residence in his room. And then another one arrived to live in his room.

Here was this kid, born in the 1990’s, totally enthralled with a throwback product of the 60’s. The lava lamps moved with him to Tennessee, California, and then back to Washington. He lived for several years in Seattle but then moved out of the city in the fall of 2019. And the lava lamps arrived back in our house. Granted they were in his room, but that meant I could visit them pretty much anytime I wanted.

Our two lava lamps in phase 1

Like me, I think my son was mesmerized by the various phases the lava light goes through when it’s turned on.

Phase 1: the blob sits at the bottom of the lamp, glowing red, blue, yellow (the most common blob colors) for a time.

Phase 2: a tiny little tendril will erupt from the blob and snake its way upward like a plant sprout in springtime, only much faster. 

Late phase 2/early phase 3

Phase 3: more tendrils erupt and then, suddenly, the entire blob seems to explode like a cumulus nimbus cloud in spring, billowing up and out, filling the lamp.

Tiny lava blobs dance in the lamp/phase 5

Phase 4: the heat of the water approaches boiling and the wax mixture starts to form the ‘blobs’ for which the lava lamp got its name.

Phase 5: the numerous and various sized blobs, slowly at first, engage in a mesmerizing dance bouncing off one another, moving around through the lighted water lamp.

Phase 6: the blobs combine with one another, the large absorbing the smaller, until all that’s left is one huge blob. This phase continues until the lamp is turned off and the blob then settles in the base of the jar to cool down.

Phase 6 – large blobs

Each of these phases is interesting in its own way. My favorite, by far, is phase three. In fact, if given the chance, I will wait until the billowing wax looks like clouds… and turn the lamp off. 

My son, as far as I can tell, loves the lava lamp when it’s in phase 5, the multi-blob state. During the time he was living with us and the two lamps resided in his room, I would often go in to visit with him and the lava lamps would be illuminated.

Two years ago he took off for Mexico and, subsequently, decided to move there. Because of the logistics of getting household goods into Mexico was a challenge, the lava lamps had to be left behind.  So far, they have remained in the same spot where he had them displayed… but I think in honor of lava lamp day it may be time to relocate them to my office.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s