Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.


You may know the lava lamp as the classic symbol of sex, drugs, and rebellion, but it started life in a surprisingly (and/or appropriately) humble way: as an egg timer.

The lamp’s eventual inventor, Edward Craven Walker, whose name sounds suspiciously like a slasher movie villain, spotted the prototypical version behind the counter while having a pint at a British pub. It was a simple, homemade device: Someone had taken a glass cocktail shaker, filled it with water, and added a blob of wax. The idea was that you would put it in the water bath with the egg you were poaching, and when the wax melted and floated to the top, boom, your egg was done. For the short-order cook, it was just a simple way to avoid overcooking the eggs, but Walker saw the potential for mesmerizing stoners for hours at a time. What if it kept going, up and down…forever? And what if it, like, glowed?

Whoa.

Walker described the lamp as “Freudian” and evocative of the primordial ooze, because apparently no one bothered to take him aside and say, “It’s just a lamp, Ed.”

The idea had the potential to become a successful novelty device, but perfecting it proved harder than Walker had originally expected. The basic formula of blob-of-wax-in-water had been created for him, but Walker initially had trouble getting the wax to cycle continuously as he had envisioned. Regular wax would float to the top and stay there—decidedly un-sexy and un-trippy. Walker went through hundreds of formulas before discovering that adding carbon tetrachloride to the wax made it cycle continuously in rising and falling globules, sort of like, I dunno, lava? Then, appropriately, he decided to call it the “Astro Lamp.”

After perfecting the formula, Walker set out to find the perfect glass enclosure for it. Blowing your own glass is, of course, expensive, so Walker decided to keep costs down by buying drink bottles from a bulk producer. He found what he was looking for in the bottle manufacturer for a drink call “Orange Squash,” a beverage that by all accounts was awful, but came in an appropriately rocket-shaped container, because Walker was still stuck on this whole “Astro” thing, despite the lava comparison being right there in front of him.

In any case, after years of making ends meet by directing documentaries about nudism (I mean, obviously), Walker had his product: some colored water and wax, sealed in a bottle, warmed by an incandescent light bulb (for anyone born in the age of LEDs, that’s an archaic illumination device that wastes half its energy making heat). He initially tried to market it to “respectable” types (the original Astro Lamp catalog advertised an “executive model,” mounted on a walnut base and photographed with a fancy pen), but it was his American licensee who really found the lamp’s true market, changing the name to “Lava Lite” and selling it to the counterculture crowd. By the end of the sixties, millions were being sold, and the lamp had become a worldwide symbol of psychedelia.

Despite his initial attempts to court respectable types, though, Walker actually seemed right at home with his embrace by the counterculture—which maybe isn’t shocking coming from a nudist filmmaker, but still. Walker—who clearly wasn’t handling even a modest amount of fame well—opined in an interview that people who disliked the lava lamp were “afraid of sex” (instead of just, y’know, afraid of kitsch). He later elaborated on this (because of course he did): “[It] starts from nothing, grows possibly a little bit feminine, then a little bit masculine, then breaks up and has children. It’s a sexy thing.” In other interviews, Walker described the lamp as “Freudian” and evocative of the primordial ooze, because apparently no one bothered to take him aside and say, “It’s just a lamp, Ed.”

Confirming that it was, in fact, just a lamp, the lava lamp disappeared almost as quickly as it had come, and sales dwindled to almost nothing in the mid-to-late seventies. It turns out that while people aren’t, in general, afraid of sex (hence the continued existence of the human race), most of us are horrified by the thought that anyone older than us ever had sex—and so what was sexy (“sexy”) ten or twenty years ago always eventually finds its way to landfills and flea markets, as we all try to wash the thought from our brains. Nothing is ever truly lost, though, and—thanks in part to the popularity of Mike Myers’s retro James Bond spoof, Austin Powers (remember back when Hollywood still made comedies?), the lamp found its way back into the mainstream and eventually attained that status coveted by all fads: bonafide classic.

In the modern era, one decidedly unsexy application of the lava lamp is assisting computers in generating random numbers. It turns out computers themselves are pretty terrible at drawing numbers from metaphorical hats—since computers are just math machines, both their inputs and outputs are consistently predictable. But the motion of a lava lamp is unpredictable enough for these purposes. At Cloudfare, Inc., in San Francisco, computers take periodic pictures of an entire wall of lava lamps and then run the data through various algorithms to generate random numbers for online data encryption.

If nothing else, that proves that great truism of mankind: Anything that is sexy and cool today will eventually be turned into something really boring that makes people roll their eyes and check their watches. Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but nerd stuff? Nerd stuff is forever.