Lava Lamp Fêtes 50 Years

The Lava Lamp, an iconic symbol of 1960s psychedelia celebrates its 50th anniversary this September with a huge party in London.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are eagerly awaiting this important global observance.

The lamp was Invented by a British accountant, Edward Craven Walker,who was inspired to create it after seeing an oil and water-based ornament on display in a pub. In September 1963, he set up a company to research and develop his visionary light.

Pictured here with his iconic creation, Craven Walker chose the company name, Mathmos, after a lava like substance which appeared in the cult film Barbarella.

The anniversary of this very British invention will be marked next month, with the installation of an enormous 200-liter Lava lamp on display at London's Royal Festival Hall.

Christine Baehr the designer's widow stated; "Edward was very focused, driven, full of ideas. When he had an idea he would see it through to the end.'

'Because it was so completely new we had to convince people it was worth going with, particularly when it came to selling. Some people thought it was absolutely dreadful."

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The lamp grew in popularity and in 1968, it made its first TV appearance on the set of Doctor Who, bringing the lamps to an international audience. The Prisoner series, followed and in 1980 Hollywood commissioned bespoke models for the set of Superman III.

His U.S. Patent 3,387,396 for "Display Device" was filed in 1965 and issued in 1968.

Craven-Walker presented it at a Brussels trade show in 1965, where the entrepreneur Adolph Wertheimer noticed it. Wertheimer and his business partner William M. Rubinstein bought the US rights to manufacture and sell it as the "Lava Lite" via Lava Corporation or Lava Manufacturing Corporation.

Wertheimer sold his shares to Hy Spector who took the product into production, manufacturing and marketing the Lava Lite in his Chicago factory in the mid-1960s. Rubinstein stayed on as a vice president.

The lamps were a success throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Lava Corporation's name changed to Lava-Simplex-Scribe International in the early 1970s, and they also made instant-loading camera-film cartridges, as well as postage-stamp vending machines.

In the late 1970s Spector sold Lava Simplex International to Michael Eddie and Lawrence Haggerty of Haggerty Enterprises. Haggerty Enterprises continues to sell their lava lamp in the US. "Lava lamp" has been used as a generic term but Lavaworld has claimed violation of trademarks.

Mechanism of Action

A classic Lava Lamp, as shown above, contains a standard incandescent bulb or halogen lamp which heats a tall (often tapered) glass bottle. A formula from 1968 US patent consisted of water and a transparent, translucent or opaque mix of mineral oil, paraffin wax and carbon tetrachloride. The clear water and/or mineral oil can optionally be colored with transparent dyes.

Common wax has a density much lower than that of water, and would float on top under any temperature. However, carbon tetrachloride is heavier 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 the wax expands more than water when both are heated. It also becomes fluid, and blobs of wax ascend to the top of the device where they cool (which increases their density relative to that of the water) and then they descend. A metallic wire coil in the base of the bottle acts as a surface tension breaker to recombine the cooled blobs of wax after they descend.

However, lava lamps made for the US market since 1970 do not use carbon tetrachloride, because its use was banned that year due to toxicity.The manufacturer (Haggerty) states that their current formulation is a trade secret.

The underlying fluid mechanics phenomenon is a form of Rayleigh–Taylor instability.

The bulb is normally 25 to 40 watts. Generally it will take 45-60 minutes for the wax to warm up enough to freely form rising blobs, when operating the lamp at standard room temperature. It may take as long as 2 to 3 hours if the room is below standard room temperature.

Once the wax is molten, the lamp should not be shaken or knocked over or the two fluids may emulsify, and the fluid surrounding the wax blobs will remain cloudy rather than clear.

Some recombination will occur as part of the normal cycle of the wax in the container, but the only means to recombine all of wax is to turn off the lamp and wait a few hours. The wax will settle back down at the bottom, forming one blob once again. Severe cases can require many heat-cool cycles to clear.