The material world / Light of our lives

Edward Craven Walker stumbled upon his mad invention in 1963 when perusing the properties of a novelty wartime egg timer

Of all the objects that might be likely candidates for a revival, the Lava lamp does not immediately spring to mind. But the light that wobbled, blobbled, and globulated into the lives of millions of people in the Sixties, casting strange shadows across their walls, is back.

The lamp works by the simple principle of combining water and wax, (the exact ratio remains top secret), and popping in a light bulb to heat it all up. Add some wacky glowing colours, interesting metalwork to hold the thing together and you have a Lava- (or Blob) lamp. Edward Craven Walker is the Godfather of Lava-lampdom. He stumbled upon his "mad invention" in 1963 when perusing the properties of a novelty wartime egg timer: melted wax rose to the top of the jar when the egg was done. Eureka! Craven Walker had the good sense to patent his product and made a small fortune. Some of it went towards the Bournemouth and District Naturist Centre, which he founded. Mmm.

Glowing future

Soon after its birth, it became ovbious that the Lava-lamp was destined for a glorious youth. Quite why, nobody knows, but the trippy dippy effect, enhanced by a few puffs of a joint, perhaps, was a perfect way of bringing a touch of psychedelia to the most suburban of living rooms. There were three original styles: the original curvy cylinder, the Astro (pictured, price pounds 49.95), at 42cm in height; the Comet, 25cm (no longer available), and the Jet, 40cm (pounds 39.95). At the height of the spacey, plastic furniture boom, Habitat (which opened in May 1964) began to stock them, and at their zenith seven million lamps per annum were manufactured worldwide.

As the Seventies swung in, however, the lamp began the downward spiral into kitsch obscurity, and by the chrome-and-black Eighties was a distant memory. The factory that Craven Walker had set up in Poole, Dorset, was languishing, making only 200 lamps a month. This is where the story of the Lava lamp should end. But no.

Space odyssey 2000

Enter Cressida Granger and David Mulley, experts on Sixties' furntiure. They stumbled upon a Lava-lamp one day in 1990 and wanted to find out more. They called the number on the base of their lamp, and soon had a meeting with Mr Lava-lamp himself, Craven Walker.

The duo saw the possibilities for a Lava revival - with the promise of a New Age decade and millennial fever, the magic lamp was ripe for re- introduction. They formed Mathmos, named after the "evil bubbling force" in the film Barbarella, and took over the factory in Poole, with Craven Walker as a director.

This is where the success story really begins. Every year since 1990, Mathmos has doubled production, and now produces 12,000 lamps a month. Some of these are sold through their shop in Drury Lane, Covent Garden; most are exported to Germany and Japan. There is, however, a healthy market here among those too young to remember the lamps first time round. And new designs have been introduced, even a new concept. The Faze 2 is an interactive colour changing lamp which uses a microchip, rather than the traditional wax and water.

The ultimate collection

At the age of 33, the Lava-lamp has found a niche in the world. It even has enthusiasts, one of whom, Geoff Bridgman, himself from Poole, has virtually turned his home into a Lava-lamp museum. He even has a collection of Lava- lamp television appearances. George and Mildred dedicated two shows to their lamp, Arthur Daly in Minder had a warehouse full of them (dodgy, of course), and the Young Ones had one next to the telly. Their latest starring role was with Patsy and Edina in Absolutely Fabulous.

Brigdman's prized possession, however, is a Fireball, which stands at more than 5ft, takes nine hours to heat up, and is roped off in his living room. Far out

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