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Lava lamp facts for kids

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Lava lamps (16136876840)
Lava lamps of several different colors
1990s Mathmos Astro
An original Mathmos Astro lava lamp

A lava lamp is a decorative lamp, invented in 1963 by British entrepreneur Edward Craven Walker, the founder of the lighting company Mathmos. The lamp consists of a bolus of a special coloured wax mixture inside a glass vessel, the remainder of which contains clear or translucent liquid. The vessel is placed on a box containing an incandescent light bulb whose heat causes temporary reductions in the density of the wax and surface tension of the liquid. As the warmed wax rises through the surrounding liquid, it cools, loses its buoyancy, and falls back to the bottom of the vessel in a cycle that is visually suggestive of pāhoehoe lava, hence the name. The lamps are designed in a variety of styles and colours.


Blue Lava lamp
A blue lava lamp

A classic lava lamp contains a standard incandescent or halogen lamp which heats a tall (often tapered) glass bottle. A formula from a 1968 US patent consisted of water and a transparent, translucent, or opaque mix of mineral oil, paraffin wax, and carbon tetrachloride. The clear water or mineral oil can optionally be coloured with translucent dyes.

Common wax has a density much lower than that of water and would float on top at any temperature. However, carbon tetrachloride is more dense than water (also nonflammable and miscible with wax) and is added to the wax to make its density at room temperature slightly higher than that of the water. When heated, the wax mixture becomes less dense than the water, because the wax expands more than water when both are heated. It also becomes fluid, and blobs of wax ascend to the top of the device where they cool (which increases their density relative to that of the water) and then they descend. A metallic wire coil in the base of the bottle acts as a surface tension breaker to recombine the cooled blobs of wax after they descend.

However, lava lamps made for the US market since 1970 do not use carbon tetrachloride, because its use was banned that year due to toxicity. The manufacturer (Haggerty) stated that their current formulation is a trade secret.

The underlying fluid mechanics phenomenon is a form of Rayleigh–Taylor instability.

The bulb is normally 25 to 40 watts. Generally, it will take 45–60 minutes for the wax to warm up enough to form freely rising blobs, when operating the lamp at standard room temperature. It may take as long as 2 to 3 hours if the room is below standard room temperature.

Once the wax is molten, the lamp should not be shaken or knocked over or the two fluids may emulsify, and the fluid surrounding the wax blobs will remain cloudy rather than clear. Some recombination will occur as part of the normal cycle of the wax in the container, but the only means to recombine all of the wax is to turn off the lamp and wait a few hours. The wax will settle back down at the bottom, forming one blob once again. Severe cases can require many heat-cool cycles to clear.

In 2015, a new design was introduced into the market that uses ferrofluid in place of wax.


Lava Lamp Factory Chicago IL
Former Lava Lamp factory, at 1650 Irving Park Road, Chicago

British entrepreneur Edward Craven Walker had the idea for the lava lamp in 1963 after watching a homemade egg timer, which was made from a cocktail shaker filled with liquids, as it was bubbling on a stove top in a pub. He hired British inventor David George Smith to develop the device and the chemical formula required to put his idea into practice. Smith is credited as the inventor on the original U.S. Patent 3,387,396  for a "Display Device", that was filed and assigned to Craven-Walker's company in 1965, and subsequently issued in 1968. Craven Walker's company was named Crestworth and was based in Poole, Dorset, in the United Kingdom. Craven Walker named the lamp "Astro" and had variations such as the "Astro Mini" and the "Astro Coach" lantern.

In 1965, two men, Adolph Wertheimer and Hy Spector, were intrigued by Walker's product when they saw it at a German trade show. They bought the American rights and began the Lava Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago to sell what they called the Lava Lite Lamp. In the late 1970s, the US rights were sold to Larry Haggerty, who created a subsidiary of his company Haggerty Enterprises, called Lava World International, which produced American lava lamps for over 30 years.

In 2003, American lava lamp maker, Lava World International (formerly known as Lava-Simplex-Scribe Internationale), shipped production to China. In 2008, they were acquired by Talon Merchant Capital and the name was again changed to Lava Lite LLC. As of 2016, lava lamps were being sold under Lifespan brands in North America. In 2018, the 'Lava Lamp' brand was acquired by toy and gift maker Schylling Inc. of North Andover, MA. who continue to hold the US trademark rights to both the shape and name of LAVA© lamp.

When the American rights were sold, Craven Walker retained the rights for the rest of the world, and took on two business partners in the late 1980s named Cressida Granger and David Mulley. Eventually Granger and Mulley took over the company and they changed the name to Mathmos in 1992. Edward Craven Walker remained a consultant until his death in 2000. Mathmos continues to make Lava Lamps and related products. Mathmos won two Queens Awards for Export, as well as Best Multi-Media prize at the Design Week awards. Astro lava lamp was launched in 1963 and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. Mathmos lava lamps are still made in the original factory in Poole, Dorset.

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