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How Liquid Motion Lamps Work


Motion Lamp History
Image courtesy Donald Cook/Stock.xchng

The invention of this type of motion lamp is generally credited to a man named Edward Craven Walker, although there is a certain amount of controversy surrounding its actual origins. One widespread account is that Walker came up with the basic design in the 1950s while developing a complicated egg timer in England. Another version of the story is that Walker got the idea from a simpler liquid motion lamp he saw in a pub. In any case, Walker was definitely the man who molded this idea into its current form and started it on its way to becoming a popular cultural icon. Walker died in August 2000, at the age of 82.

Walker worked on his motion lamp, which he called the Astro Light, for almost a decade before finally launching it in 1963. His U.K.-based company, Cresworth, achieved some success with the device, but the lamp design really took off when the U.S. company Lava Manufacturing Corp. formed in 1965. The company was founded by two Chicago entrepreneurs, Adolph Wertheimer and Hy Spector, who discovered Walker's Astro Light at a trade show in Germany. They acquired the U.S. patent rights and began producing a line of their own motion lamps. These lamps soon caught on as a must-have decoration for the counterculture crowd.

This company, now called Lava World International, still produces almost all of the commercial models sold in U.S. stores. Their product is called a Lava Lite®, not a Lava Lamp, but both terms are trademarked. Like Xerox and Kleenex, "Lava Lamp" is commonly used as a generic term, but intellectual property law does not recognize it as such. Lava World International closely monitors how publishers print the word "lava" in connection with motion lamps.

When the Lava Lite caught on in the United States, Walker's Astro Light grew in popularity in Europe. Sales dropped off in the 1980s, however, and Walker sold the Astro Light rights to Cressida Granger. Her company, Mathmos, continues to produce lamps for the market outside the United States. The company has expanded its line considerably over the years, offering many innovative, modern variations on the basic lamp design.

Both Mathmos and Lava World International have enjoyed a "motion lamp renaissance" that began in the early 1990s as part of a 1960s nostalgia trend. Astro Light and Lava Lite sales are still going strong today, and there are lots of motion lamp fans out there, at least judging by the number of motion lamp sites populating the Web.

Next, we'll show you how to build your own liquid motion lamp.


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