Lava lamps now 50 years old, still groovy

September 3, 2013

Lava Lite in Elk Grove Village is one more chapter in the continuing story of that crazy piece of furniture from the days of the Beatles and psychedelic parties of rising and falling wax in colored lamps. It's 50 years old now, but beginning a new life.

"A lot of people try to link us to retro and kind of a throwback to '60s or '70s. But the largest demographic of growth is kids under 18. So it's a very current and relevant product of today," said John Howell, Lava Lite VP of marketing.

The Lava Lite or lava lamp was invented in England in 1963 and came to America two years later. It was an instant hit with its slow-motion ups and downs of colored balls in colored water.

"The heat from an incandescent light bulb melts the wax and causes it flow up and down within the lamp itself," Howell said.

But the type of wax and type of water is still part of a secret formula. Originally the lava lamp had just a few colors. But in recent years, sales have gone up by adding more than 60 new designs. They have many return customers. Their favorite is a singer from England.

"We have Paul McCartney... In tribute to his wife, he always has lava lamps on stage. And Linda was a big fan of lava," Howell said.

So you heard the Lava Lite was a dying blob of melted wax. No way. Just take a look at the warehouse. Hundreds of thousands of Lava Lites ready for shipment to places like Walmart and destinations around the world, roughly about 1.4 million a year, Howell said.

A British company began marketing their original creation as an "exotic conversation piece" in 1963. Since then, millions of models of the much-copied invention have been sold worldwide.

The design was created by British inventor Edward Craven-Walker, who was inspired by an odd-looking liquid-filled egg timer he saw in a pub in southwest Britain.

The former World War II pilot then spent years transforming the concept into a home lighting accessory, having recognized the potential for such an invention during anything-goes '60s Britain.

"Everything was getting a little bit psychedelic," said Christine Baehr, the second of Craven-Walker's four wives. "There was Carnaby Street and The Beatles and things launching into space and he thought it was quite funky and might be something to launch into."

Britain's "Love Generation" saw an affinity between the fluorescent lava flow's unpredictable nature and the easy-going, drug-induced spirit of the decade.

Craven-Walker's first model, the Astro Lamp, also reflected the technological innovation and imagination of the time, shaped like a sci-fi rocket. Soon other models, such as the Astro Mini and the Astro Nordic, emerged from Craven-Walker's Crestworth company, building on his original concept.

Baehr recalls a memorable moment when they were told that Beatles drummer Ringo Starr had bought one of their lamps. "That was a great, 'Ah we've made it,' moment," she said.

Despite the decline of British manufacturing, with numerous well-known brands dying or moving to countries with cheaper labor costs, lava lamp making company Mathmos has remained at their factory in southwest Britain still employing Craven-Walker's tried and tested formula.

"I think it's really special to manufacture something that's been invented and made in Britain, in Britain for 50 years," said Cressida Granger, who became involved with Crestworth in 1989, renamed it Mathmos in 1992 and gained sole ownership in 1999.

U.S. rights to manufacture the lamps are held by Haggerty Enterprises Inc. of Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

Granger went on to enjoy a second wave of success for Craven-Walker's invention during the 1990s, as a new generation of consumers, obsessed with retro British trends, lit their rooms with '60s lava lamp designs.

Craven-Walker, whose other enthusiasms included nudism, died in 2000.

Lava lamps are based on two liquids of slightly different density which will not mix. The heavier liquid sinks to the bottom, but when heated by the lamp light its density decreases and it floats to the top.

His invention has had roles in music videos and on television, having originally appeared in popular British television shows during the '60s such as "The Prisoner" and "Doctor Who."

"I think it's the motion within the lamp," said Anthony Voz, a collector of Mathmos products. "The way that it flows, how it's anti-repetitive, how it's a mixture of light and chaos blending together. It kind of pulls people in and before you know it, you've spent 15 minutes looking at it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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