Lava lamps enlighten lives of many

Jesse Weisbeck

The lava lamp: an enigma. A mystery wrapped in a riddle. A virtual paradox. What is the mystical power of this potentate of living room furnishings, and where the hell did it come from?
Perhaps it was when the god of groove descended to earth and spake only one thing: “Let there be lava lamps, groovy people.”
Probably not, but since the 1960s, these sultry living room sundries have graced us with their eye- pleasing presence. Whether staring at the slowly oscillating globular matter in stony contemplation or hurling it at an ex-lover after a tawdry love affair, the lava lamp has affected many lives, good and bad.
Though the heyday of the lava lamp is now just a bygone age, the market for lava lamps is still running strong today. For about $20 anyone with a passion for 1960s swank can own one of these devices.
Perhaps the lava lamp was the groovy catalyst of yesteryear’s love and freedom, the real culprit behind the demise of the baby boomer age group. After all, what man or woman could resist the inexorable seductivity of someone who owned a lava lamp or two?
These lamps were the progenitors to all that is swank today. They are the definition of groovy. Their sundry sizes and colors have dazzled and mystified millions of people worldwide, but one might not suspect its auspicious beginnings.
The lava lamp was invented shortly after World War II by an Englishman named Craven Walker.
According to the oft-told tale, Walker happened upon a strange contraption in an English pub one day that looked like a pair of tin cans and an old cocktail shaker. He bought the uncommon object and took it home to study it. He later found out that a man known only as “Mr. Dunnett” had invented and owned the lamp, but had died several years earlier.
Walker deciphered the long-time secrets of the strange lamp, wherein a quantity of soupy matter moved within a volume of clear liquid, oscillating up and down in a cylindrical container tapered at the ends in true 1960s fashion.
Walker established a business called “Crestworth Company” and perfected the lamp over the next 15 years. The patent ran out on the lamp a few years later, and entrepreneurs in the United Stated picked up on the idea, marketing the lamp with widespread success.
The way lava lamps work was a well-kept secret for many years until Walker’s patent expired and the modus operandi of the quizzical, eye- pleasing artifact became widely known.
The cylindrical container is filled with plain tap water, and the “lava” is benzyl alcohol, a poisonous liquid that can kill if ingested or cause serious skin damage if touched. The base of the container is heated by a 40-watt light bulb which also acts as the light source.
When the benzyl alcohol is heated at the base of the unit, it becomes less dense than the surrounding water and rises to the top of the lamp. Once the “lava” has reached the apex of the container, it has cooled to the point when it is more dense than water and sinks back to the bottom. The benzyl alcohol cycles through this process as long as the lamp is on, and that’s the magic of the lava lamp.
Harmless as the apparatus might seem, doctors still occasionally whisper the tale of a 65-year-old alcoholic man who drank the contents of a lava lamp. No, he wasn’t imbued with divine powers of funk or turned into the Emperor of Swank.
The cautionary tale describes how the man’s mental status declined for three days and his kidneys nearly shut down. After being hospitalized, doctors removed the impurities from the mans blood and sent him on his way.
Experiencing the divine omni-swank of lava lamps is a look-but-don’t-touch affair. Oh well.