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Lava Lamp

November 21, 2000

A public radio commentary

As a baby boomer I'm amused to see the era of my youth - the 1960s and 70s - returning in TV sitcoms and movies. As a survivor of those decades - and as an engineer - I'm going to jump onto this 70s band wagon and share with you the details behind an icon of the era. In engineering terms I'm talking about thermal chemical convective motion of strongly temperature and depth dependent viscosity liquids. No, it isn't a story about drugs, its the Lava Lamp.

I recall as a kid seeing Lava Lamps on the Avengers, the British TV series. The Lava Lamp was the brainchild of Edward Craven Walker a former Royal Air Force Squadron Leader in World War Two. After the war he started a travel agency - and he indulged in a lifelong passion in what the British call "the Natural Way of Life." Edward Walker was a nudist.

While on a "natural" vacation off the coast of France he made films prompting this way of life. One of naturalists doing underwater ballet to Rimsky-Korsakov's Song of India made him a fortune which he used to promote nudism - and to develop the Lava Lamp.

While visiting a London pub he noticed a heated glass cocktail shaker filled with oil and water. The rising and falling oil entranced Walker so much he immediately bought the rights to produce this lamp. A Lava Lamp seems a simple thing, but to make one work correctly isn't a simple thing at all.

The Lava Lamp is filled with globes of oil in water so that as heat is applied to the bottom of the Lamp the heavier liquid becomes less dense and rises; as it rises it cools becoming more dense and falls again. Getting the proper mix of liquid is the main secret of Lava Lamps. Edward Walker worked in his back yard for ten years to perfect the proper formula - its a mix of water, oil, wax and other solids that is still secret today.

Walker's Lava Lamp caught on quickly - even though the large British Department store Harrod's said it was disgusting and refused to carry it. Walker sold it with the slogan "If you buy my lamp, you won't need drugs." To Walker the Lava Lamp's motion was "like the cycle of life. It grows," he said, "breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again." "Besides," he added, "the shapes are sexy." This, of course, passed for philosophy in the 1960s. His lamp took off as psychedelia took hold in the mid-1960s. The Lava Lamp is perhaps the symbol that most characterizes that era. So much so that at a recent ceremony by the 70s Preservation Society - a group that keeps that decade alive - they skipped the usual statutes for their annual achievement awards and just gave the winners Lava Lamps.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises