Who hasn’t stared fascinated at its gently blobulous movements up and down the glass. At the waxing and waning of the shapes as they rise until it seems they must burst before floating gently back down again. Ah, the lava lamp – adored by students, small children and nostalgia lovers everywhere.
Symbolic of the sixties but still immensely popular as each person who discovers it for the first time will attest.
Its inventor Edward Craven-Walker said of his creation: “[It] starts from nothing, grows possibly a little bit feminine, then a little bit masculine, then breaks up and has children. It’s a sexy thing.”
He also said, showing a true grasp of his 60s market: “If you buy my lamp you won’t need to buy drugs.”
Mary Bellis, writing for about.com, tells how Craven-Walker was having a pint one evening and noticed a lamp, which he described as “made out of a cocktail shaker, old tins and things”. It was also filled with liquid.
One story says the landlord told him it was an egg timer. The cocktail shaker went into the water with the egg and, as the water heated, the wax would melt and float to the top in the time it took to perfectly boil the egg.
Craven-Walker bought the lamp from the publican and determined to make a better one. On discovering that its inventor was dead he was able to patent it for himself and 15 years later, in 1963, the Astro Lamp was launched. Just in time for psychedelia.
Its cult status was cemented when it appeared on programmes such as The Prisoner, Doctor Who and The Avengers.
The lamps were made at Craven-Walker’s factory Crestworth in Poole, Dorset. He took out worldwide patents and sold the US rights to a company which called it Lava Lite, a name which is still used today and which means they can claim to be the original manufacturers as they invented the name if not the actual product.
But eventually, as with all things, fashions change and the lava lamp faded in popularity during the seventies and eighties.
In 1989, Cressida Granger and David Mulley, two young antique dealers took over the firm. Granger had been selling both vintage and new lamps at Camden market and realised the demand. She contacted the Crestworth factory, where production had slowed to around 100 a month and Craven-Walker agreed to a deal for them to run the company and buy it over time.
They rebranded it as Mathmos, after the bubbling force in the cult 1960s film Barbarella, and watched the company double in size over and over again. It was listed Virgin Atlantic’s Fast Track 100 list of fastest growing companies in Britain.
The company continues to thrive and reinvent itself and Craven-Walker remained a consultant until his death in 2000.
First published in The Independent