Finding Fire

When we named our podcast The Campfire Project, the logic behind it was simple. We wanted to get back to where we came from: telling stories and dissecting our thoughts, one detail at a time. Though the “fire” the glow of our computer screens, but for Matt and I, it is still our weekly meeting place. A time to vent. A time to communicate. Lately I’ve been thinking about a different kind of modern day campfire of a different sort: the lava lamp. 

Let me explain. 

College was a wonderful time for me. I majored in music while holding down various jobs, so in addition to earning an education, those years were also a stress test, an exercise in just how much fatigue my body and mind could handle. It was difficult, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. When I attended college in the mid '90s, the internet was in a nearly unrecognizable state. Creaky, unfriendly, and frustratingly slow, even the simplest of tasks often proved difficult. Certainly, what Matt and I do on a weekly basis was not possible.

After a long day of work, classes, rehearsals, endless practicing, and homework, I often found myself firing up my lava lamp. A cheap substitute for a fireplace, maybe, but I loved watching the ooze inside bubble and flow. It's hypnotic movements allowed my brain to wind down, eventually letting me drift into precious sleep. Sometimes friends or roommates would join me around the device's warming glow, and we would talk about our day over a few cigarettes and beers. The details of those conversations are lost now, but the lava lamp remains a constant in my mind. There is nothing in the world I find more relaxing.

The first lava lamp I ever owned lasted well through college, eventually joining my wife and I in our first apartment and then to the house we bought soon after. It served me very well for years, until one day when the switch broke. Foolishly, I threw the lamp away. I still regret it.

It's now years later, and I still miss old lava lamp. Though it may seem like a frivolous excercise in nostalgia, I recently embarked on a quest to track one down to plunk by my side as I worked from home. That’s when the trouble started, and to make it perfectly clear as to why, I should probably give at least the Reader’s Digest version of the history behind these items that so many of us still have in our homes, but take for granted. 

The most commonly held view of how lava lamps came to be begins with Edward Craven-Walker, who invented the lava lamp back in 1963, and founded a company called Crestworth in the UK to sell his wares. Two years later, he licensed his formula and lamp specs to another company in the United States. That company, the Chicago-based Lava International, marketed their lava lamps as “Lava Lite.” Both companies still exist to this day, and, fittingly, are the only two companies in the world that truly know Edward Craven-Walker’s recipe for a good quality lava lamp. Crestworth is now called Mathmos and still sells high quality hand-made lava lamps.  Lava International is now called Lava Lite, and is headquartered in Itasca, a suburb of Chicago.

Being a Chicago resident myself, I assumed buying a new lava lamp to bring back those old memories would be a simple transaction. Unfortunately, actually procuring a new, high quality lava lamp is now much harder than it seemed as first glance.

They literally do not make them they way they used to.

First and foremost, Mathmos no longer supplies US resellers with their lamps, and they do not ship their lamps anywhere outside of the UK. This is a true shame because they make an extremely high quality product that is worth every penny they charge. 

Unfortunately, there is an even bigger problem, and I learned it the hard way after purchasing a Lava Lite lamp on Amazon just after the holidays. The lamp I bought was gorgeous, with a glimmering silver base and cap that just happened to match my computer, and contrasted by the faint blue liquid surrounding green lava. It was not as solidly built as the one I got back in the ‘90s, but it looked nice and worked properly…for about two weeks. After a few cycles of heating up and cooling down, the lamp began releasing air bubbles the size of cherry tomatoes. Ultimately, it stopped flowing altogether. I was insanely disappointed. In my pursuit of a solution, I found a small but devoted community of lava lamp collectors at a site called Oozing Goo. After digging through the forums, I was horrified at what many of its members had to say.

Unfortunately, Lava Lite seems to have changed its approaching, switching up the formula for the wax in its products and using a different kind of metal for the coil at the bottom of the glass globe that is responsible for breaking the surface tension on the wax and controlling the flow. This causes the lava to sit in a ball on top of the coil instead of melting into it. The coils also seem to releasing small flecks of metal into the wax itself, which I’m sure also contributes to the high malfunction rate. According to a great deal of forum members, Lava Lite will deny this. I cannot confirm or deny personally, because I’ve yet to have them answer either of the emails I’ve sent them about my concerns, and have not been able to get through to their support department via telephone.

Even more troubling is that Lava Lite moved their manufacturing to China in the early 2000s, where the globes and bases are mass produced. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but in this case the quality seems to have suffered in the move. The globes contain several small air bubbles in them that make them look like the dome of a planetarium, and the bases look and feel like they’re made out of sheet metal. Serious collectors on the Oozing Goo forums seem to have come to the informal consensus that two or three out of every five of these Chinese made lamps are “duds” and end up doing exactly what my new lamp did. You can get a good idea of just how far the quality of Lava Lite lamps has fallen by doing a quick search for them on Amazon. The customer reviews are not encouraging and largely mirror my experience.

So where does all this leave someone who wants to revisit the old days and relax by the glow of such an iconic fixture? Unfortunately, the options are limited: either buy a Goo Kit to make your new lamp work the way it should, or start hunting through listings on eBay for old models. (If you can find one that was made in the ’90s, that seems to have been Lava Lite’s sweet spot.) I tried both and ultimately I found a nice 1997 Lava Lite brand lamp. It’s currently sits on my desk and looks great.

Whatever method you use to get a lava lamp in 2015, I can tell you from experience that it is not going to be easy to get a good one. And if you already have one that was built “back in the day,” hold on to it for dear life. They literally do not make them they way they used to.