The lava lamp was an instant icon when it was introduced in the swinging sixties. Maria Court talks to Mathmos managing director Cressida Granger about the Poole invention that’s still waxing strong after 50 years of business...
They have been bubbling away for half a decade – those symbols of psychedelia which have kept the world mesmerised with their dancing, morphing blobs.
You could be forgiven for thinking the iconic space rockets were first launched in Florida, or San Francisco at the height of flower power. But no, the original lava lamp was invented here in Dorset and is still proudly made in Poole 50 years later.
Cressida Granger has been managing director at Mathmos since 1989. Her path to the top started with selling second hand lava lamps on a London market stall.
She was set a challenge by the original designer Edward Craven-Walker who said that if she could make the company profitable in one year she would receive the main share of the business. And she did just that.
She remembers Mr Craven-Walker as ‘something of an eccentric’. “As well as an inventor and entrepreneur he was a fighter pilot in the Second World War,” she said. “He was also an accountant, an underwater film maker, flew helicopters and drove a fire engine!”
A pioneer in the naturist movement, he also owned a naturist camp – The British Athletic Naturist Camp near Ringwood.
It was a chance visit to a Dorset pub that sparked the initial idea for the first lava lamp. Craven-Walker spotted an egg timer at the bar which used two different interspersed liquids. He took years to develop and perfect his vision for the lamp and for the first models he used orange squash bottles.
Finally he launched the Astro in 1963. It was an instant hit and sold by the million. The first store to stock it was Selfridges in London.
It became one of the defining products of the swinging ’60s, appearing in cult TV series The Prisoner and Dr Who.
While Crestworth was the original company name, it seemed entirely fitting to rename it Mathmos from the cult 1960s film Barbarella (which imitated the lamp’s psychedelic effects to represent various difficult concepts such as space travel and dreams).
“From the very beginning the Astro was successful,” said Cressida. “Though sales have hit two particular peaks: one at the end of the 1960s and the other after we relaunched it in the 1990s.”
The year 2000 was also a defining one for the Poole company. Mathmos was announced as one of the fastest-growing businesses in the UK, and the lamp was declared a design classic by British Design Council. It was also the year that inventor Edward Craven-Walker died, aged 82.
He is cited as once saying: “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need drugs... I think it will always be popular. It is like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again”.
Like the KFC herbs and spices, what exactly goes into the lamp is a closely guarded secret, but it’s a blend of wax, water and chemicals.
Only the 20 or so staff at their site knows what goes into the making of the lamps. While the glass is made in York and other parts made in Devon, they are filled and assembled in Poole, as they always have been.
Today, the company has since diversified into LED lights, projectors, touch-control lights and other colourful gadgets – though the original lava lamps make up about half their current turnover.
Cressida said: “A lot of people don’t know that such an iconic thing is made in Poole. It’s great that we have been in continuous business for 50 years. Not many products can claim they have been made in Britain for half a century.”