The lava lamp has fairly mysterious origins. About the only thing known for sure is that the British entrepreneur Edward Craven Walker perfected the technology for what he called the Astro lamp and began selling it through his Crestworth company in 1963.

Other stories about the lamp's origin are much more hazy, but they have similar elements: A man named Mr. Alfred Dunnet produced a rudimentary one-off invention in the 1950s—possibly made of an egg timer or a cocktail shaker or both, possibly in a Dorset pub Walker frequented—in which a glob of oily liquid rose upward when an egg was cooked.

Walker, a former World War II pilot, became obsessed with this invention, whatever it really was, and began experimenting with the concept in Tree Top Orange Squash bottles. Dunnet is said to have died by the time the Astro lamp hit the market. Walker, who was also known as a vocal advocate of nudism, took out patents and worked out royalty deals all over the world.

These lamps were an instant hit with mod youth, hippies, and fans of psychedelic music or drugs. Soon, the Astro lamp appeared on popular TV programs of the day, including “The Prisoner,” “Doctor Who,” and “The Avengers.”

In 1965, two Chicago men named Adolph Wertheimer and Hy Spector were fascinated by Walker’s invention when they saw it at German trade show. They bought the American rights and began the Lava Manufacturing Corporation to sell what they called the Lava Lite Lamp. In the late ’70s, the U.S. rights were sold to Larry Haggerty, who created a subsidiary of his company, Haggerty Enterprises, called Lava World International.

Lava lamps are based on a simple scientific principle—that certain liquids, like oil and water, don’t mix. To make a lava lamp work, at least of one of the liquids has to possess the ability to change density without changing form. Most lava lamps are believed to contain water and wax. When the wax, warmed by metal coils and a light bulb heats up, it loses density and rises to the top of the lamp. When it reaches the top, it cools, gains density, and sinks again. Add a little food coloring, and “Whoaaaa, man!”

Early Astro lamp designs used liquid wax instead of solid wax, and had an anodized copper finish. The first generation of Astros was made out of two cones that slipped into one a...

In the flatter-topped second design, the ground wire is protected by a metal plate, and you can still see the air at the top, whereas the third design features a felted base and sometimes four bubble-shape feet. The Astro became slimmer for the fourth generation—when these version have bubble feet, they have five not four. The fifth-generation Astro is the most commonly found vintage model. Made in the 1970s, it was the first version sold as one piece and had a Bakelite base.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Crestworth also produced a smaller lava lamp known as the Astro Mini or Astrobaby. The earliest of these Astro lamps came in rose, primrose, clear, yellow/green, and blue/green for the “master fluid” or water colors, and ruby, topaz, amber, and emerald for the “moving-base” or wax colors.

Other ’60s Crestworth designs include the cylindrical Astro Nordic—add a little glitter to the water and the Astro Nordic became a Crestworth Glitterlite—and an Astro Lantern. Some vintage Astro lamps had floor stands or wall mounts. Crestworth also produced a lava-lamp timer that was shaped like a canon.

Walker also experimented with fiber optics, inventing Crestworth lamps made out of a fiber optic spray protruding out of a copper base, which he called the Galaxy (with a glass dome) and Phantom Lite (without). He also made the Aromalite, which released a pleasing scent into a room.

By the late ’70s and early ’80s, the fervor for lava lamps had died down considerably. But two young antique dealers, Cressida Granger and David Mulley, who had been selling vintage and new lava lamps at Camden Markets in London, knew the market still had potential. Accordingly, in 1989, they took charge of Crestworth. Soon, Astro lamps were more popular than ever, and by 1992 they had renamed the company Mathmos, a word taken from the bubbling force in the ’60s cult film “Barbarella.”

Walker, who remained involved in Crestworth until his death in 2000, delighted in his invention’s renewed popularity, and joked that people who didn’t like lava lamps “didn’t like sex.” In 1998, Granger took sole control of the company. Facing cheap knockoffs from China, she pushed Mathmos into a new era of novelty lamp technology, launching products like “Fluidium” lava lamps, glitter-filled and color-changing lava lamp wax, lamps with rechargable LED lights, and a silicon bubble light that turned on and off when you squeezed it.

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