The Psychedelic Story Behind Lava Lamps

published Sep 23, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

Lava lamps are synonymous with the ‘60s, much like beaded doorway curtains and avocado-colored cabinets. Like all great inventions, the idea for the lava lamp came about while in a bar. British accountant-turned-entrepreneur Edward Craven-Walker had the idea for the lava lamp in 1963, after watching a homemade egg timer bubble on a stove in a pub in Hampshire, England. The timer was made from a glass cocktail shaker with liquid, and it had wax blobs that floated to the surface when the egg was done. 

Walker was transfixed with this DIY project, and wondered if he could recreate it into a lamp. He joined forces with British inventor David George Smith, who developed the chemical formula and device to keep it in. Funnily enough, the first prototype mimicked the shape of Orange Squash, a kind of gross orange syrup drink popular in England at the time. Hey, all great ideas had to start somewhere. 

The lava lamp quickly became a staple in the psychedelic and hippie counterculture, and it embodied the groovy feel of the ‘60s. Walker himself declared, “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need to buy drugs.” Walker dubbed the funky lamps “Astro Lamps,” and they only grew in popularity as they made cameos in hit shows like “Doctor Who” and “The Avengers”

Credit: Laura Hofenk

However, Astro Lamps weren’t originally intended to typify the Swinging Sixties counter-culture. Walker at first thought the lamps would capture a more traditional demographic’s eye. According to The Smithsonian, Astro Lamps were first marketed as respectable and staid decor. In 1968, the lamp appeared in the American Bar Association Journal next to a ballpoint pen and mounted on a walnut base. It was all very dignified. 

The lava lamp made its way to the U.S. when Walker showcased his Astro Lamp at a novelty convention in Germany in 1965. Adolph Wertheimer and Hy Spector were at that convention, and saw the potential of the Space Age-looking lamp. The two Americans bought the rights to the invention and introduced it to the U.S. market as Lava Lite. That’s when the Lava Lamp got its groovy reputation. 

“Lava Lite sales peaked in the late sixties, when the slow-swirling colored wax happened to coincide perfectly with the undulating aesthetics of psychedelia. ” Jane and Michael Stern wrote in their book, “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste“. “They were advertised as head trips that offered ‘a motion for every emotion.’”

But like with all mega-trendy fads, the lava lamp soon fell out of favor. The trippy lamp became a thing of the past by the mid-1970s, garnering about 200 sales a week, which was quite a dip from its seven million sales a year. But the molten lamp had an interesting resurgence in the late ‘80s. 

“As style makers began to ransack the sixties for inspiration, Lava Lites came back,” Stern shared. “Formerly dollar-apiece flea market pickings, original Lava Lites—particularly those with paisley, pop art, or homemade trippy motifs on their bases—became real collectibles in the late eighties.”

Lava lamps are still a quirky novelty piece today, especially with the current interest in retro and vintage home decor. They’re a staple in college dorms, tween bedrooms, and vintage-enthusiasts’ houses. But who knows? Depending on who you ask, lava lamps could be overdue for a comeback. Very groovy, baby!