A 1960s icon you still find decorating college dorm rooms, a British accountant invented the first Lava Lamp. Although the exact recipe for the ingredients inside the Lava Lamp is proprietary, the pop-decor lamp usually contains colored wax inside translucent or clear water mixed with ethylene glycol – the same ingredient that makes up antifreeze in your car's radiator. The heat-resistant jar with the wax and water are sealed and set into a base that hides a light inside it, reflected up through the clear glass and into the metamorphosing shapes suspended in the water once it heats up.

Lava lamps RGB (image)
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Lamp lamps contain heated wax suspended in colored water.

Heated and Cooled Wax

The base contains a lightbulb that when turned on, heats the wax in the base of the Lava Lamp jar, which also contains the water. The water, the wax or both have color in them to create surreal light effects. When the wax heats up, it becomes lighter than water and moves up in shapes that stretch and merge psychedelically until the wax reaches the top of the sealed container. Once it cools away from the heat source, the wax drops back down to the base to repeat the surrealistic journey.

Lamp Ingredients

The wax in the lamp is paraffin, a petroleum-based wax mixed with carbon tetrachloride. The liquid part of the lamp is a mixture of antifreeze, a food dye or translucent coloring agent and salt. The exact recipe requires tight calibration to get the individual gravities – the ratio of the density of the wax to the liquid – to work inside the lamp when exposed to the heat of a 40-watt bulb.

Lava Lamp History

British accountant Edward Craven Walker invented the first Lava Lamp in 1963 under his company Mathmos. He got the idea for the lamp when he noticed a homemade egg timer in a pub inside a cocktail shaker with strange-looking shapes inside while it bubbled on the stove. An American company -- Lava Lite -- bought the rights in 1965 to make and distribute the lamp in the United States, which ended up being the name that stuck.

Counterculture Decor

A symbol of the counterculture that erupted in the 1960s, the space-age shape of the Lava Lamp fits the decor of a college dorm, a teen's bedroom or in a house with the psychedelic decor of the 1960s or a retro '70s look. Turn off the lamp when it is not in use. Don't open the bottle that contains the liquids and the wax, which are toxic children or pets ingest them because of the antifreeze and other chemicals. If your lamp fails, you can buy an inexpensive replacement.

Homemade Lava Lamp

Make a safer version of a Lava Lamp without all the toxic ingredients used in the original manufactured models. All you need is a clean, plastic soda bottle with its cap, water, vegetable oil, food coloring and effervescent tablets. Add water to the bottle after filling it 3/4 full with vegetable oil. Add food coloring and cut up the tablets into eight pieces. The tablets cause the colored water to bubble to the surface similarly to the action of a Lava Lamp.