Lava lamps celebrate 50 groovy years

The iconic moving light maker is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an unveiling of the world's largest lava lamp.

An original Astro lava lamp. (Mathmos)
An original Astro lava lamp. (Mathmos)

Fifty years ago, Edward Craven Walker turned a neat idea into a global phenomenon, making the world a way more psychedelic place along the way.

In September 1963, Walker was inspired by an oil and water ornament on display at an English country inn to invent the ultimate groovy decor: the lava lamp.


Now, 50 years later, the original lava lamp makers are teaming up with the London Design Festival to mark half a century of the mesmerizing lamps, topping off the a month-long celebration with the unveiling of the world's largest lava lamp at London's Royal Festival Hall next week.

The 200-litre lamp will be the same basic design as the original Astro -- rocket-shaped aluminum base, glass bottle filled with the lava -- first made 50 years ago by Craven Walker.

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A limited-edition anniversary lamp will also be made available, with each of 500 lamps signed by Craven Walker's widow, Christine Craven Walker.

"Because it was so completely new we had to convince people it was worth going with, particularly when it came to selling," said Christine Craven Walker, recalling the early days. "Some people thought it was absolutely dreadful."


The lamps began to gain popularity, appearing in an episode of Doctor Who, which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, and another sci-fi series, The Prisoner. The Craven Walkers also delivered customized lamps for the set of Superman III in the 1980s.

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But it wasn't television or film that they saw as the real mark of success.

"When did we realize things were going really well? The day a store in Birkenhead phoned to say that Ringo Starr had just been in and bought a lava lamp," Craven Walker said. "Suddenly we thought, 'Wow, we have hit it.'"

The Craven Walkers teamed up with entrepreneurs Cressida Granger and David Mulley in the late 1980s, after the post-hippy era saw interest in the lamps wane. Granger rebranded the company, originally called Crestworth, renaming it Mathmos after the lava-like substance featured in the cult film Barbarella.

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While lamps coming off Mathmos's line still work the same way the originals did -- tungsten lamp heating the still-secret formula of wax lava -- Granger, now the company's managing director, said they hope to improve on the next 50 years.

"The metal spinning [of the bases] has changed," Granger said, adding that they "now have robots working alongside hand-spinners."


She also said Mathmos plans to phase out the tungsten bulb.

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"We have a patent pending on a new way of operating lava lamps," Granger said. "We are getting R&D funding from the government for that."

But collectors of the originals need not worry.

"We're also stockpiling bulbs," she reassured. "We reckon we've got enough to keep people going to for a while."

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