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  • Sean McLeod

(ESSAY) 'Lamprothocene' by Sean McLeod

Moving image of lava lamp: pink and purple splotches move against a deep purple background
Credit: Mark Juhasz

Can an impulsive purchase make you happy? Sean McLeod explores the desire for ‘humane ambience’ through the life-cycle of a lava lamp—the instant joy at its aesthetics, the inevitable deflation of knowing how it works, and the ultimate loneliness of stepping into an online community of professional hobbyists.

You felt tired today, so you bought a lava lamp.

Rather than calling the order number, the guy at the Argos collection counter just said

“Lava lamp?”

43.18cm // 17’’ - Hand-painted and finished glass - Realistic Northern-Lights Decal

When you assemble it, you notice the hand-painted and finished glass bottle is sealed at the top with a beer cap. At this point — cautiously grabbing the bottle-opener off the fridge — you pick up the instructions.

Once it is on, you send photographs to your brother and your least judgemental friends, then wait for the wax to melt.

Upstairs neighbour has an argument with himself; an impromptu, semi-masked barbecue kicks up outside; your kettle stops working. It may soon be time to consult the jar of loose fuses your Grandfather gave you as a moving-in present.

Once it gets going, it is breath-taking.

You lie in bed, watching it, sending more pictures.

It seems a pretty clean cut could be made between your pre and post-lamp lives.

You can finally retire your ambitions to own a fish — humane ambience has been achieved.

A friend who has clearly not clocked the realistic Northern-Lights decal says it’s a bit basic.

If it is, then maybe it’s time to rebrand — what’s wrong with living, laughing, or loving?

The land of milk and honey beckons — you deserve fairy lights above your bed.

Pearlescent wax coalesces.

A circuit of polite blobs, pressing finished glass to let one another pass.

Phone buzzes.

Your brother bought a house three weeks ago, and here you are boasting about your new lava lamp. It is only as you read his generous “looks awesome bro :)” that you see yourself for a moment as the world does.

Get lost in the lava again.

Cautions from the instructions about “denaturing” and “misting” have put you on edge, and once tumours start to appear on the perfect blobs, you dodge another flash of self-awareness as you Google how long is it safe to keep a lava lamp on.

This brings you to a conversation on the Lava Talk forum of – The Lava Lamp Syndicate.

Other sections include

My Goo

Pics & Vids


ebay US

ebay UK


Live Chat!

Lava Library

and Main.

The jargon being thrown around — but obviously, I have to adjust because I’m running a 52 oz, a classic 20 ounce and I believe a few 32’s, so I aim in between the slowest and the highest — is over your head and stuck between denominations you understand.

To ask for clarification, you will need to register as a GooHead.

There are currently 5,860 GooHeads.

You try to identify some common thread for name etiquette from the three users in the forum.

franklylamphard proudpapabear91 rodneymcneill1962birmi

gooeylewisandthenews is taken.

You are now happylamper_guest123ab – don’t overthink it.

Hey guys. Sorry – I’m pretty new to this. How long is it safe to keep a normal lava lamp on?

The last comment in the thread is from 2015, so you don’t expect the immediate response.

proudpapabear91 “A normal lavalamp”

franklylamphard I remember being a virgin too.

rodneymcneill1962birmi hsha

proudpapabear91 “hsha”

franklylamphard Haha

proudpapabear91 Volume/wattage?

happylamper_guest123ab Thanks for getting back to me!

Is that stuff on the base?

franklylamphard Jesus.

proudpapabear91 Does it look **BIG**

rodneymcneill1962birmi *haha

proudpapabear91 Just send a photo.

Another twinge of clarity as you realise how many pictures you have to choose from.

happylamper_guest123ab Can you tell from these?

proudpapabear91 My advice is don’t be such a cheapskate buy a real lamp.

franklylamphard Get what you paid for.

The post button greys out – This question is now closed; replies will be archived, but no new — and you drop the phone.

The blobs are scabbing up.

You switch it off – the silhouettes continue in the same directions as before for a second like sun floaters, then sink away.

You consider starting a new forum, but ten minutes later you have forgotten this, perusing the lava library FAQs.

How can I polish my brushed metal bases?

Why is the flow bad?

What is a lava lamp made of?

What we know—

Water, 38% by mass; chlorinated paraffin, 36%; low molecular weight polyethylene glycol, 13%; kerosene 7%; and microcrystalline wax, 6%.

What we don’t know—

The correct mixture of the above chemicals. — or “OG”, as they refer to themselves in their about us section — was established in 1997. Have the GooHeads been trying to create their own lava lamps for 23 years, shaking paraffin and kerosene together like amateur bomb-makers in smoke-laced rooms, then sweeping glass to the floor when the wax sinks? The thought makes you laugh, then makes you sad.

The pursuit of rotating wax is the pursuit of something, at least.

According to a grainy pdf in the Lav Lib — lava library — the first US patent of the lava lamp was filed on November 13th, 1968, by one Eric Craven Walker.

You find a photo of him, grinning grey beside his invention. Acquainted as you are with the GooHeads, with their devotion to wattage and brushed brass and imagined patterns of randomness, he looks to you like L. Ron Hubbard, selling community.

“If you buy my lamp, you won’t need drugs.” He said. “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.”

Thankfully, the GooHead doctrine is immiscible. You can disacquaint yourself, ignore the fact you have — irreparably — made yourself a GooHead, and he suddenly looks like an old man with a chequered suit and British teeth.

Even he was fallible.

He must have been because when you switch the lamp back on to see if the bubbles have disappeared, the blobs have crystallised at the bottom in a frozen, beaded rose. You cannot imagine its surfaces ever smoothing out again, or any heat setting it back in motion.

In the disclosure of his patent, E.C says

It has been found that some viewers may become im- patient during the preliminary heating up period. It has also been found that there is a danger of the globule or globules of the first component breaking up into unattrac- tive tiny droplets if the device is overheated, i.e. operated for excessively long periods.

But how long is excessively long?

Was even the inventor at a loss?

Maybe this is what the GooHeads don’t know; maybe their frustrations and formulas aren’t an attempt to recreate lamps they could buy in the shop — loin-clothed acolytes burning wickermen on the hill to appeal to some creative entity beyond themselves — maybe their interest is scientific.

Smoothing out the flaws.

Maybe proudpapabear91 and franklylamphard weren’t dismissing you for asking a question they already knew the answer to but despairing of your inability to solve one they didn’t.

Maybe there is something admirable in a mission like this – in devotion to flaws.

Maybe becoming a GooHead isn’t about setting a password or identifying road-sign tiles — or failing to do so on the first attempt and identifying traffic lights instead — but is in fact a shared search for the fixed answers which might lead to permanent abstraction.

It is worth noting that the top question in the LL — Lav Lib — is

How do I contribute to the Lava Library?

How do I contribute?

You pick up the instructions you dropped the moment the lamp switched on 14 hours ago to see if there is some clue – any hint to the enigmas which would spur 5,681 lonely people to fill their heads with goo.

Only now do you notice the instructions are folded.

When you unfold the bottom, a large, red disclaimer appears:


The next morning, staggering to the bathroom, your foot catches the wire and the lamp clatters to the floor.

Whether it was this or the overheating, the next time you switch it on, the interior of the lamp is an opaque cloud of pink-grey – nothing moves behind the finished glass.

A week later and it lives in the hall cupboard, beside the previous tenant’s broken iron.

One day it will be joined by whatever the next tenant ruins, and this will continue until the flat can be dated by flipping the shelf upright and counting its layers.

You are in your brother’s beautiful new home, watching your niece drag a crocheted blanket across the carpet with the intensity of an amateur musician with a crowd.

You ask how she’s been, say you feel like you haven’t seen her in ages.

“She’s great, man. She can say a few words now. Like, when I bring out her Weetabix in the morning, she says ‘bix.’

He runs to the kitchen and returns with the box, waving it in front of her as she chews the blanket.

“What’s this Freya?”


“Is it your tasty bix?”


“Come on, Freya.”

She pulls the blanket over her head and gurgle-laughs.

“She did it earlier.”

You say you believe him, but from the dejected way he holds the box it seems he doesn’t believe you, so you ask how his new job is.

“Just the same as the old one, really — bit more money, way more hours. Nothing to write home about.”



“What about you? How’s the lava lamp?”

You tell him you broke it.

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”





You ask him when he’s getting his new car.

“Heather’s picking it up now, actually. Why not stick around for dinner and see it?”

You say you’d love to, but you’re busy this evening. He seems disappointed.

On the walk back up the road, you Google fish food price.


Text: Sean McLeod

Published: 13/11/20


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