The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: A History

Photograph of The Royal Institution Faraday Lecture Theatre
The Royal Institution Lecture Theatre where the Christmas Lectures are held
Christina Giallombardo

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions. Perhaps you like opening your advent calendar every day, decorating your Christmas tree, or going carolling. But what about watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures?

The Lectures have been held every Christmastime since 1825, hosted by the Royal Institution, with the aims of making science more accessible and inspiring the next generation of great scientists.

The first Royal Institution Christmas Lecture was hosted by the British engineer John Millington. In 1936 it became the UK’s first science TV series. They were created by Michael Faraday who also hosted the lectures on nineteen separate occasions, at a time when organised education for young people was scarce.

The Royal Institution itself, founded in 1799 by Joseph Banks, is one filled with a rich history of scientific discoveries and revelations, and a place where legends have walked the halls. Within the walls of the Royal Institute, strontium was declared an element by Humphry Davy in 1810, iodine was discovered by Bernard Courtois in 1811, and other inventions like the Miners’ Safety Lamp, invented in 1813 by Davy and Faraday, were created.

To science, Michael Faraday (creator of the Christmas Lectures) is one of the greats. His discoveries in electricity had an enormous impact on physics and helped shape mathematical theories that are still in use today.

Colourised lithograph of Micheal Faraday delivering a lecture

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) Lecturing in the Theatre at the Royal Institution, c.1856 (coloured lithograph) by Blaikley, Alexander (1816-1903)

Even with Faraday’s death in 1867, the tradition of the Christmas Lectures lived on through many hardships and difficult times, even continuing this year when the world was brought to a standstill by COVID-19. The only time the Christmas Lectures went on hiatus was during WW2 (1939-1945), when the Royal Institution’s basement was used as a bomb shelter.

Throughout the years the lectures have been given by multiple world-famous scientists including Sir David Attenborough and Carl Sagan

When the Christmas Lectures first began, the only way to hear them was to get tickets and be in the lecture theatre. That was until 1936, when the first of the Christmas Lecture series to be televised by the BBC was given by Geoffrey Ingram Taylor and was entitled ‘Ships’.

The Christmas Lectures are hosted by one or multiple scientists and are centred around a certain science such as chemistry and physics, and even some more unusual fields such as botany and zoology! They used to be presented in several parts, but nowadays they are given in three sections.

Throughout the years the lectures have been given by multiple world-famous scientists including Sir David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Nobel Prize laureate Sir William and Lawrence Bragg (1919, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1934, and 1961). The first female Christmas Lecturer was Susan Greenfield who presented in the 1994 series ‘Journey to the Centres of the Brain’.

The lectures are not all talk, often including fun experiments. In the 2016 series, Saiful Islam used 1000 lemons to build the world’s biggest lemon battery in order to explain the science behind it.

The Christmas Lectures is a series that shows us how science has shaped the past and how it will shape the future

The Lectures are not only used to educate the masses about science but to also talk about prevalent issues in the world at the time and delivering important messages in an accessible way.

This year’s Christmas Lectures are hosted by Christopher Jackson (who is also the first black scientist to be a Christmas Lecturer), Helen Czerski, and Tara Shine and is titled ‘Planet Earth: A user’s guide’. The 3 episodes will air from 28th till 30th December.

Jackson will discuss how volcanic activity has driven climate change on Earth. Czerski will then explain why the oceans are so vital to life on Earth. Finally, Shine will explore how Earth produces oxygen, what comprises air and, why the increasing carbon emissions are so dangerous.

The Christmas Lectures is a series that shows us how science has shaped the past and how it will shape the future, and is one presented by centuries of world class scientists hosted by an organisation rich with history. Make sure you tune into this year’s lectures; you never know what you might learn!

Christina Giallombardo

Featured image by AnaConvTrans from WikiMedia. Image licence found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image by Royal Institution from Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

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