Lava lamp creators mark 50 years of 1960s icon

Celebrating 50 years of the lava lamp

A quick drink in a pub in the heart of Hampshire's New Forest was to give the world an iconic symbol of the psychedelic 1960s that is still going strong as it marks its 50th anniversary.

An early prototype lava lamp shell An early prototype lava lamp shell
Technology of Business

Edward Craven Walker was inspired to create the lava lamp after admiring an oil and water-based ornament he had spotted on display in the country inn - and in September 1963 he set up a company, now known as Mathmos, to research, develop and most importantly market his invention.

Mathmos - named after the lava-like substance which features in the cult film Barbarella - will celebrate its 50th birthday next month with the installation of a gigantic 200-litre lamp at London's Royal Festival Hall and the launch of a limited edition model designed by Mr Craven Walker's widow, Christine Baehr.

"Edward was very focused, driven, full of ideas," said Ms Baehr. "When he had an idea he would see it through to the end."

Long before the days of crowd-funding and Dragons' Den, persuading investors to get on board was no mean feat.

"Because it was so completely new we had to convince people it was worth going with, particularly when it came to selling," Ms Baehr recalled. "Some people thought it was absolutely dreadful."

The Sixties were also less connected times. "We didn't have any online technology," she told the BBC. "We literally had to go around in a van."

Nonetheless, word soon spread about the brightly coloured lamps with their mesmerising wax shapes that formed, rose and sank because of the heat of tungsten bulbs.

In the mid 1960s, they made their first TV appearance on the set of Doctor Who. Another sci-fi series, The Prisoner, followed and in 1980 Hollywood called - the Craven Walkers were asked to deliver bespoke models to the set of Superman III.

"When did we realise 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," said Ms Baehr.

"Suddenly we thought, 'Wow, we have hit it.'"

Doctor Who lava lamps Doctor Who episode The Wheel in Space was the first to feature lava lamps in 1968.
'Post-war drudgery'

The initial appeal of the lava lamp was in part a rebellion against the post-war drudgery of interior design, when bright colours were too expensive to manufacture on a wide scale, believes architect Dan Hopwood, council member of the British Institute of Interior Design.

"Suddenly there were all these new printing and dying methods - all those acid colours started coming in - it was quite exciting," he said of the beginning of the trend for psychedelia.

"Have you ever been inside an original 1940s interior? It looks like mud."

But like all fashions, the trend eventually came to an end. In the mid-1980s, a quiet time for lava lamp lovers, Cressida Granger stumbled upon them in a hunt for some new merchandise for her vintage furniture stall in London's Camden Market.

When she saw how well they sold she contacted the manufacturer, coincidentally based in her own birthplace of Poole in Dorset.

By the late 1980s, Ms Granger was managing director of the firm she decided to rebrand Mathmos.

Patent problems

One of her first issues was a problem corporations still battle with today - the patent the Craven Walkers had taken out to protect their invention had expired after a standard period of 20 years.

However, luckily for Ms Granger, the world had not yet noticed - and round the corner was a new generation of lava lamp lovers, the British university students of the 1990s.

"People didn't realise the patents had run out," she said.

Cressida Granger Cressida Granger took over the company in the late 1980s.

"When people did realise then we had lots of competition to deal with but we did have a lovely period of monopoly in the 90s. It was a case of right time, right place, right product."

Ms Granger believes the firm sold more during this period of revival than the original burst of interest in the 1960s.

Despite the company's secrecy over the exact ingredients of its lava lamp formula, cheaper copies soon started to appear from Asia.

Mathmos, however, decided to stay put.

"It would be much cheaper to make lava lamps in China," said Ms Granger, adding that some of the company's other LED lighting products are no longer made in the UK.

"But I think it's special to make a heritage thing in the place it's always been made. The bottles are made in Yorkshire, the bases are made in Devon, the bottles are filled in Poole and the lamps assembled to order in Poole."

Detroit spinners
lava lamp robots Robots from Detroit now assist in the lava lamp-making process

While much of the manufacturing process would still be familiar to Edward Craven Walker, who died in 2000, one element of it now involves a helping hand from across the Atlantic, as the financial collapse of Detroit has incongruously benefited the production of lava lamps.

"The metal spinning [of the bases] has changed," said Ms Granger.

"We now have robots working alongside hand-spinners.

"The metal bashers of Detroit were selling their kit very cheaply... and some of those robots have ended up in rural Devon, making lava lamps."

But the final stage, in which the lamp bottle itself is filled with lava formula, is still done by hand - it takes around a day and a half for one member of staff to fill a batch of 400 lamps.

"We're not aiming to be the cheapest lava lamps in the world - we are aiming to be the best," said Ms Granger.

That is reflected in the cost of the product - prices for a Mathmos lamp begin at £50 on its own website, compared with $15 (£9.50) from a US website called Lava World.

The collectors market, however, is also flourishing, according to collector Anthony Voz, who runs the website Flow of Lava.

Christine Baehr Christine Baehr with a large lava lamp

"The most valuable tend to be ones which were limited production runs - ones that weren't so commercially successful. Also rare colours, limited edition astro lamps, pieces which are historical - very early lamps from 1963, '64, '65," he told the BBC.

"We're talking about several hundred pounds. Giant floor lamps will go for thousands."

'Addictive'

Mr Voz plans to launch a virtual museum dedicated to all things lava lamp later in the year.

"On eBay there's a massive market," he said. "I was contacted by a guy who lives in Singapore - he has 10,000 lamps. It's crazy but once you get one it's a bit addictive, you want to collect them all."

The next challenge for Mathmos, the lava lamp grande dame, is likely to be the phasing out of tungsten bulbs, used to heat the fluid but now considered to be energy-inefficient.

"We have a patent pending on a new way of operating lava lamps," said Cressida Granger enigmatically.

"We are getting R&D funding from the government for that."

But how about the collectors and their priceless originals?

"We're also stockpiling bulbs," Ms Granger added.

"We reckon we've got enough to keep people going for a while."

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