Lava lamp

Dear Editor:

The Lava Lamp turned 50 in 2013. It was then that the Smithsonian magazine chose to honor it with a long article, noting that it had, in the 60s, come to symbolize all things counter cultural and psychedelic. The article goes on to record the history of the lamp, though it never tells the story of how a certain entrepreneur decided to take a chance on bringing the prototype from Europe to Chicago, decided that the time was right to manufacture and market the lamp, and bought an enormous building on Irving Park Road in which to do so. I was there in the very beginning when my dad, Hy Spector, sold his thriving corrugated container business and made the commitment to throw his (and our) lot in on a hunch that the time was right for this product. From then on, Chicago was home to the Lava Lamp and every single one of them was made in Chicago.

No one actually "invented" the Lava Lamp. Credit for this is often given to an eccentric British guy named E. Craven Walker, who did, in fact, get the idea for the lamp in 1963, after observing an egg timer made from a cocktail shaker filled with liquids as it was bubbling on a stove top in a pub. He took the idea to an inventor who developed the chemical formula to make the lamp perform as we know it today. Walker named the lamp "Astro" and went on to manufacture his lamp in Europe. In 1965 my dad and a business partner saw the Astro at a German trade show. When the partner decided to abandon the risky project, Dad took it on by himself, buying the American rights, naming it the Lava Lite, and setting up shop in Chicago.

The rest is, as we say, history. The lamp was very sensitive to heat and cold, and quality control was an issue. At one point Dad hired a chemist from Harvard to address those problems. But Dad never looked back. It was clear to me that he was really having fun and never regretted the chance he took. Though the lamp was immediately successful, even Dad could not have predicted the extent to which it would be adopted as a counter cultural icon as the 60s pressed on.

Dad sold the company in the late 70s, feeling that it had run its course. Now they're manufactured in China. Dad never would have dreamed that its popularity would continue to this very day. I, of course, always have had at least three Lava Lamps in my home. One of them is really old, from the late 60s. It continues to perform to this day, and it's my very favorite.

Nancy Spector Stone

(1) comment


I completely agree! So much so that I've made it my mission to create a documentary about this piece of forgotten Chicago history! I'd LOVE to reach out to you, Nancy, and perhaps interview you about your father for the documentary!

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