A lava lamp is a novelty item used for decoration rather than light. The slow rise and fall of blobs of wax is suggestive of lava, which is where the name comes from. The lamps are available with a variety of styles and colors of wax and liquid. They rose to prominence in the late 1960’s and are often associated with the hippie movement.
The lamp is an incandescent bulb, which heats a tapered glass bottle containing water and a translucent mix of wax and carbon tetrachloride. A metallic wire coil in the base furthers heat convection and suspends the falling blobs of wax.
Since common wax is less dense than water and would float at any room temperature, a heavy, nonflammable solvent is added to adjust the wax slightly higher than that of water.
The lava lamp owes its shape to physics: at the tapered end there is more surface area and the liquid there cools more than nearer the bottom.
The cycle of rising and falling wax continues as long as the temperature differential remains sufficient.
If too low or too high a wattage bulb is used, the lava ceases to circulate, remaining at the bottom (too cold) or rising to the top (too hot).
Singapore-born Englishman Edward Craven Walker invented the lava lamp in the 1960s. His patent for "Display Device" was filed in 1965 and issued in 1968. Walker's company was named, “Crestworth” and was based in Poole in the United Kingdom.
Walker named the lamp, “Astro” and had variations such as the “Astro-Mini“, the “Astro-Coach” lantern and presented it at a trade show in 1965, where the entrepreneur Adolph Wertheimer noticed it and his business partner William Rubinstein. They bought the American rights and produced it as the, “Lava Manufacturing Corporation“ the origin of the word "lava" for this lamp.
The lamps were a success throughout the 60s and early 70s. The lava lamp became an icon of the 1960s, the changing, bright display compared to the psychedelic hallucinations of recreational drugs, particularly LSD.
An episode of the Americ an TV show, “Mythbusters” demonstrated that heating a lava lamp on a stove could make it explode and that injuries from an explosion could be fatal. The inspiration for that experiment came from a story concerning a man who in 2004 died after a lamp he was heating on a stove to avoid waiting for the wax to warm up exploded, sending glass into his chest and earning him a, “Darwin award”.
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(Resources: Lava Lamp from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)