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50th anniversary of the Lava Lamp — a history and 12 groovy vintage designs

retro lava lampTime for another birthday celebration — 50 years of the Lava Lamp! It is estimated that 94% of people recognize the Lava Lamp shape — but how much do you really know about the history behind this groovy iconic lamp? What other product inspired it? What was its original name? Its current British name? Ever seen a Lava Lamp wall sconce — or one designed for church or temple? Impress your friends with your knowledge of Lava Lamp lore — read on for our history and lots of vintage photos.

And: Hang on to your bell bottoms — we have a giveaway coming tomorrow 🙂

lava lamps

Lava Lite LLC contacted us with news about the Lava-versary, and we bothered them to get lots of yummy historical information and photos. Goodness, there were lots of Lava Lamps!

A History of Lava Lamps

The inventor of the Lava Lamp was Edward Craven-Walker, a Brit. He got the idea for the Lava Lamp while sitting in a pub, when he saw a prototype for an egg timer created by Alfred Dunnett. Craven-Walker thought that, with some refinement to make the oil inside of the prototype solid, the design could be much more interesting. He bought the patent from Dunnett’s widow. We are not told how/why an egg timer morphed into a lamp. In any case it took Craven-Walker 10 years to get it right, and when he did, he formed Crestworth Company with his wife, Christine.

The Crestworth Company was later named Mathmos; Mathmos still owns the patent in Europe and markets its own version of the Lava Lamp. They actually got their design launched in 1963, so they celebrated their 50th anniversary two years ago.

Craven-Walker’s original name for his design was the “Astro Lamp.” Promoting his creation, he boasted, “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need drugs.” (Remember, this was the ’60s, you could say such things in Marketing.)

After launching sales in Britain, Craven-Walker continued looking for international alliances. American entrepreneur Adolph Wertheimer saw Craven-Walker’s exhibit at a Brussels trade show in 1965 and in a flash, he and a business partner bought the U.S. rights and put Lava Lamps into production in Chicago.

The lamp remained popular throughout the 1960s and 1970s, however, in the 1980s, popularity dipped.

Historical tidbit: Craven-Walker consulted on a James Bond film that showed gigantic Lava lamps as the four posters of a bed. Which movie was it?

Murray Moss, an entrepreneur and design critic in New York, said, ”It was devoid of function but rich in emotional fulfillment. It could momentarily free your mind like a warm bath.”

retro lava lamp

retro lava lamp

retro lava lampHow Lava Lamps work — what’s inside a Lava Lamp?

Lava Light sent Pam a sample of the 50th Anniversary Lava Lamp, and she says she was impressed by the quality — and the simplicity.

The lamp is comprised of just four parts: (1) The cone-shaped aluminum base that (2) holds a light bulb specially sized to your design. Next, you set the (3) odd-shaped glass globe (hand-blown), which is filled with “lava” materials into the base. Last, you pop the (4) aluminum cap onto the glass globe for the finishing touch. Plug it in… then wait.

What is inside the Lava Lamp? The company says it’s: water, wax, a secret sauce of 16 chemicals, and a metal coil.

Lava Lite LLC describes the process that makes the hypnotic Lava Lamp thang happen:

While in use, the Lava Lamp uses the principles of physics to its advantage. When the lamp is turned on, the lightbulb heats the wax, with the help of a metal coil at the base of the lamp. The wax gets hot enough that it starts to rise. When the wax approaches the top of the glass globe, it is far enough away from its heat source that it cools and drops back down. It’s this delicate balance of density and temperature that makes a Lava Lamp’s magic.

It takes a couple of hours, typically, for the wax to get hot enough to start its rise-and-fall. So if you’re planning a party, plan ahead.

Vintage Lava Lamp Styles

As we are known to do when it comes to stories like this, we pestered the Lava People for historic photos — and they came through with flying colors. Or bubbling colors, as it were.

retro lava lampretro lava lampretro lava lampretro lava lampAbove: The Century and Aristocrat styles are the iconic Lava Lamp that first comes to mind when we think of Lava Lamps.

retro lava lampretro lava lampAbove: Here’s a midcentury modern styled Lava Lamp with a tubular design: The Consort and Regency styles were marketed as a handsome accessory for a man’s desk.

retro lava lampAbove: The Meditation styles feature a cross and menorah.

retro lava lampAbove: Then there’s the kiddie variety — the Nite Lite — complete with a drawing of a circus clown on the lamp’s glass. The Lava Lamp’s low light and soothing movement was supposed to aid children in falling asleep. But… Is anyone else freaked out by this? The children we know would be … terrified!

retro lava lampAbove: “A hypnotic spell-binder” — The Mediterranean. Very 1970s!

retro lava lamp retro lava lampAbove: Lava Lamps that you could wire directly into the wall to use as sconces. YES!

retro lava lampAbove: A big trends in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was combining a popular household item with a planter — heck, we’ve even seen a toilet with a planter built into the tank lid. Here, the same idea was used with this Decorator style of Lava Lamp.

retro lava lampAbove: The Continental model was cordless and marketed for use out on the patio.

retro lava lampAbove: The Lava Lamp Lantern — combining Old English Coach lights of an earlier era with the 1960s Lava Lamp icon. There’s a style for everyone.

lava lamp

And in 2015: The 50th anniversary lamp features a gold embossed base and a yellow wax/ purple liquid globe combination.

In Craven-Walker’s own words, “I think [Lava Lamps] will always be popular. It’s like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again. And besides, the shapes are sexy.”

And more:  Lava Lite LLC  offered to give away one of the new anniversary lamps. Check back tomorrow for all the details.

More info about the Lava Lamp and its creator, Edward Craven Walker:

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  1. tammyCA says:

    Mesmerizing & relaxing! That’s how I remember it when a friend had one in the ’70s. The starburst perforated one looks very cool as do the pretty sconces empress & princess. I have a keychain lava lamp that is in the dollhouse .????

  2. Karin says:

    Lava lamp sconces, far out! Who knew? I would love to see those in the wild. I can certainly concur that looking at one has a calming effect. There were a few products then that had purpose. Anybody
    remember psychedelic stereo speaker globes that pulsed with color?
    Trippy. Thanks for the memories, great story.

  3. Shirley says:

    In the series “Northern Exposure” from the early 90’s, Holling had a pink one in his bar, “The Brick”. In one episode you can see they had just turned it on because the wax was just starting to melt. He also had a pineapple lamp. The show used a lot of retro props (lamps, curtains, furniture).

  4. Jeneta says:

    Ah the ever groovy lava lamp. Always wanted one as a teenager. ‘Lava lamps’ always reminds me of greg brady’s ‘man cave’ lol

  5. Betsy in Michigan says:

    I found a large perforated base cheap at a yard sale and just popped my new model’s glass/chemicals into it (they aren’t attached). Love the starburst effect!

  6. Becky from Iow says:

    They re-released The Aristocrat in the ’90s. This is my daughter’s–she left it behind when she left for college. Can you believe it?–near my NOS Bucky Fuller “Revolution” poster from the 1960s (thanks for the tip on those posters, RR. I bought two!). The twinklelights from the base are groovy…(Shoot. No way to upload the picture I just took)
    Gonna turn on all three vintage LL in honor of their birthday. Also accidentally made my hysband feel really old by pointing out he is 15 years older than a Lava Lamp. Ooops

    1. pam kueber says:

      Lana, you should reach out to Lava Lite and see what they can tell you. I think I saw replacement parts on their website. Get to them via the bold blue hotlinks in our story.

  7. PDQ says:

    I had never seen the sconces before. Very cool !!! And I’ve noticed I’m not the only commenter who thinks so. Maybe if they see enough interest they’d bring them back (?).

    I wonder what the dims on those were……..

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