How does a lava lamp work?

How does a lava lamp work?

Many a veteran exited World War II eager to make up for the lost time and begin working at making his fortune in the post-war consumer boom. Edward Craven Walker, a Singapore native who flew reconnaissance missions for the Royal Air Force, was no different.

One day, while visiting a pub in Hampshire, England, he became fascinated by an egg-timer on a shelf behind the bar. The timer was essentially a blob of solid wax suspended in a clear liquid in a cocktail shaker. Drop the shaker into the boiling water with your egg and when the wax melted and floated to the top, the egg was done. As Walker looked at the egg timer, he saw the lava lamp.

He sought the inventor of the egg timer and discovered that he had died without patenting it. He spent the better part of the next 15 years perfecting a way to mass-produce his ‘astro lamp.’ The theory behind his novelty lamp was relatively simple – enclose two liquids which are similar in density and insoluble in one another and apply heat.

The most common insoluble liquids are oil and water. However, the oil is nowhere near dense enough to achieve the desired result. What chemicals did Walker use? The recipe is a trade secret, only the manufacturers of lava lamps know the exact ingredients. Like the secret formula for Coca-Cola, scientists can analyze and approximate the chemicals but can not duplicate the exact recipe.

Once Walker determined the liquids, he assembled his lava lamp to apply heat via a light bulb in the base. The heavier of the two liquids absorb the heat first and begin expanding. It becomes less dense and this ‘lava’ rises. As it rises in the lava lamp it moves further from the heat source and cools down enough that it once again becomes heavier than the liquid in which it is suspended and it falls back towards the base.

Since heat absorption and dissipation is a slow process, all the motion takes place in slow motion. The lava also is injected with special chemicals that make it easy for the wax to plop into blobs when it is stretched to the breaking point. When the lamp is off, this heavier liquid squishes onto the bottom. The exact concoction of this potion is what eludes amateur lava lamp constructionists. If the liquids and chemicals are not perfectly balanced the result is an explosion of tiny bubbles or flow up the side of the container.

By 1963 Walker had all this figured out and began manufacturing his Astro lamps in a factory in the south of England. He unveiled it at a novelty convention in Hamburg, West Germany in 1965.

Two American entrepreneurs purchased the American rights and renamed it the Lava Lite. The amorphous blob light was an immediate hit in the psychedelic 1960s. Soon more than seven million lava lamps were being sold each year.

Just as quickly, the fad ended. Before the 1970s were over, yearly sales were less than 10,000. Most people forgot about lava lamps unless they were spotted at a garage sale.

But like the lava lamp itself, the cycle of sales was not over, just sinking to the bottom. In the early 1990s, original lava lamps from a generation before became cherished collectibles, and sales of new lava lamps once again measured in the millions annually.

But like the lava lamp

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