Learn How the Lava Lamp Became a Groovy Icon of 1960s Style

Take a deep dive into how this liquid-filled fixture came to represent the peace-and-love generation.

Perhaps no object represents the rebellious, psychedelic spirit of the 1960s better than the lava lamp. During a tumultuous time defined by antiwar protests, the civil rights movement, shocking political assassinations, and a frenzied space race, the fixture's colorful eccentricity appealed to a generation of young people who rebelled against the norms established by their predecessors.

For the counterculturists of the swinging '60s, the lava lamp's lurid glow and molten contents represented an escape from mainstream society. While not especially functional—too dim for any sort of task lighting and bulbs prone to overheating and burning out—the funky fixture's intended purpose was never entirely practical. Instead, it was meant to establish a mood, and in that, the lava lamp was singularly successful.

1960s lava lamps from Mathmos
Courtesy of Mathmos

Origins of the Lava Lamp

The original design was created by Edward Craven Walker, a British entrepreneur and inventor whose wide range of interests included underwater filmmaking and nudism. His inspiration stemmed from a makeshift egg timer he spotted at a pub in post-World War II England. This odd invention consisted of a glass cocktail shaker filled with water and a ball of wax, which was placed inside a pot of boiling water alongside an egg. As the wax melted, it formed a goopy, globular substance, indicating that the egg was done.

Mesmerized by the waxy liquid's movement, Craven Walker spent the next 15 years developing a lamp that replicated this effect. The exact formula remains a closely guarded secret, but his basic recipe combined a wax substance with a water base inside a glass bottle. A lightbulb below the glass heats the contents, causing the waxy "lava" to float to the top, where it cools and begins to sink back down. This happens repeatedly, creating a continuous cycle of rising and falling blobs.

Edward Craven Walker, Inventor of the Astro Lamp

It's like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down, and then starts all over again.

— Edward Craven Walker, Inventor of the Astro Lamp
Edward Craven-Walker was the inventor of lava lamps and founder of Mathmos with his wife and business partner Christine Craven Walker
Courtesy of Mathmos

In 1963, Craven Walker debuted his innovation, a liquid-filled, rocket-shaped fixture called the Astro Lamp. He and his wife, Christine, set up a small workshop in Poole, England, to manufacture the product under the company name Crestworth, Ltd.

Their first patent was secured in 1964, and the following year, two American executives spotted the Astro Lamp at a European trade show and purchased the rights to manufacture it in the U.S. It was rebranded as the "Lava Lite" lamp, and sales skyrocketed.

Within a few years, more than 7 million lava lamps had been sold worldwide. The fixture made its television debut with a 1968 episode of the sci-fi series Doctor Who and later appeared throughout the iconic British TV series The Prisoner. But the proudest moment for the Craven Walkers reportedly came when they got word that Ringo Starr of The Beatles had purchased one of their Astro Lamps at a store in England.

Mathmos original Astrobaby Lava Lamp from the 1960s
Courtesy of Mathmos

A Counterculture Symbol

Although it would eventually become a symbol of hippie culture, the lava lamp was originally marketed as a luxury conversation piece for sophisticated interiors. Early advertisements touted the Astro Lamp as a "living jewel," designed to provide modern decorative lighting in homes, offices, hotels, restaurants, and more.

But as the psychedelic craze swept the '60s, the lava lamp was embraced by the peace-and-love generation, becoming as much a part of the hippie aesthetic as tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and flower crowns.

By the late '70s, however, the counterculture movement had largely faded and the demand for lava lamps cooled. Production slowed to about 1,000 lamps per year when Craven Walker passed the business' operations off to a young entrepreneur named Cressida Granger in 1989. The company later relaunched under the name Mathmos, a reference to the 1968 sci-fi film Barbarella.

Although the '60s were certainly the golden age of the lava lamp, the off-beat fixture experienced a revival during the '90s amid another youth-driven cultural rebellion. The release of the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery further heightened interest in psychedelic culture, and lava lamp sales soared once again. Mathmos reportedly sold upwards of 800,000 units in 1998, topping its initial peak decades earlier.

Today, the company continues to manufacture the original Astro Lamp in the same part of England using the exact formula developed by Craven Walker in 1963.

The lava lamp's staying power proves it's more than just a novelty relic from the '60s. Its various ebbs and flows in popularity have coincided with some of the major cultural shifts that shaped society in the postmodern era. Describing an interview in 1997, Craven Walker said, "It's like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down, and then starts all over again."

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