Calling all 90s kids! 

November 17, 2021

If you grew up in that wondrous decade (or the swinging 70s), chances are you were well acquainted with the teenage interior design statement du jour—the glowing, hypnotic lava lamp. 

They occupied pride of place on desks and bookshelves across the land, forming mesmerising shapes as the wax moved up and down the glass vessel. You couldn’t look away, but you learned very quickly not to touch – as the glass would be as molten hot just as its name suggested. 

Transfixed as you were, it’s unlikely you ever learned of the lava lamp’s origins and how exactly it worked. But wonder no more! Read on to find out all the things your teenage self wishes they knew about the lava lamp.  

How did the lava lamp come to be?

Originally manufactured in the UK in 1936, the original lava lamp was the brainchild of Edward Craven Walker, the founder of lighting manufacturer Crestworth—which was renamed Mathmos in the 1960s. Walker found his inspiration in a pub in Dorset, where he spotted a homemade egg timer made from a cocktail shaker and bubbling liquid perched atop a stove. He called his original design the ‘Astro’ and rolled it out in multiple versions including the Astro Mini. 

In 1965, Adolph Wertheimer and Hy Spector bought the American trading rights for the lava lamp, calling their product the Lava Lite Lamp and cementing their place in pop culture history. Mathmos still manufactures lava lamps in the original factory in Poole, Dorset. 

What are lava lamps?    

In case you’ve never had the optical pleasure, lava lamps are a type of decorative lamp famed for their rocket-shaped bulbs, glowing colours and perpetually moving and morphing bubbly liquid interiors. They don’t have many components, but each part is precisely manufactured and constructed to ensure everything works together to create the desired effect.  

The main part of the lamp is an hourglass shaped vessel made to precisely fit into the top and bottom metal components. Once it has been filled (including with springs or coils), the top of the glass is sealed with a glued lid, and the upper metal component is affixed on top. The bottom metal component acts as both a stand and a heat source. Inside the glass vessel is a mix of a transparent liquid and blobs of wax, both of which come in a wide variety of colours.  

Lava lamps don’t emit much light, but they are very hot to the touch—so be careful!
Lava lamps don’t emit much light, but they are very hot to the touch—so be careful!

How do they work?

The exact science behind lava lamps is not known, because the recipe for the liquid components is a proprietary secret. However, the movement of the wax bubbles relies on the density of the wax. As the bottom of the lamp heats up, the wax moves towards the top of the vessel—and as it rises through the liquid it cools, and falls back down to the bottom, only to repeat the cycle again. 

There are coils or springs at the bottom of the lava lamp to break the surface tension, helping recombine the cooled blobs of wax when they fall. In the past, carbon tetrachloride was added to the paraffin wax to ensure the correct density, but since the 1970s, this hazardous chemical has been banned. 

How to DIY a lava lamp

Temporary lava lamps can be made at home quite easily! You’ll need canola oil, water, food dye and alka seltzer tablets. Fill up ¾ of a glass vessel with the oil, and then add water to the other quarter, leaving a few centimetres at the top. Add a few drops of food dye—you’ll notice they will settle on the bottom of the oil layer. Add one alka seltzer tablet broken into a few pieces. Et voila! The components of the tablet (citric acid and baking soda) will react to the water and create bubbles, with the coloured drops moving through the liquid.

You can make lava lamps at home from simple ingredients!
You can make lava lamps at home from simple ingredients!

How Chemwatch can help

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