In pictures: a history of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

The Royal Institution (Ri) Christmas Lectures have become a tradition on the BBC, broadcast every year since 1966. Here are eight images which show remarkable moments from the history of the lecture series…

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Along with the Queen’s Speech and Carols from King’s, the Royal Institution (Ri) Christmas Lectures have become a family tradition on the BBC. First delivered in 1825 by the Ri Professor of Mechanics John Millington, they are the longest-running series of scientific lectures in the world. Having been broadcast every year since 1966, they are also one of the longest continuously broadcast science programmes on television.

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Here, in a history of the Ri Christmas Lectures in pictures, are a host of eminent scientists, explosive demonstrations and a litany of ‘don’t try this at home’ moments…

1855: Michael Faraday lecturing on ‘The distinctive properties of common metals’

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(Painting by Alexander Blaikley/used with permission from Royal Institution)

Although the Christmas lectures had started in 1825, this is the first recorded image. Fittingly, it’s of British scientist Michael Faraday, who is credited with giving the lectures their format: a short series of talks, full of demonstrations. Faraday delivered the Christmas lectures no fewer than 19 times, including every year in the 1850s. Today, each series consists of three lectures, broadcast on consecutive nights between Christmas and New Year, but in 1825, there were 22 lectures encompassing Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. The number was quickly reduced to six lectures at Christmas when the others failed to attract an audience, with the Ri realising the sort of people attending such lectures 200 years ago were often residing on their country estates in the spring months.

1900: Robert Stawell Ball lecturing on ‘Great chapters from the book of nature’

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(Print by Fred Pegram 1870-1937/used with permission from Royal Institution)

Robert Stawell Ball was a popular astronomy lecturer and gave the Christmas lectures five times. In one lecture, he stated that he didn’t suppose man would ever walk on the moon (although science fiction authors were already writing about this at the time). Many of the demonstrations were basic to say the least: one used a football to represent the sun and a piece of lead shot to represent the earth; another had a tennis ball suspended on a string from the theatre ceiling to demonstrate how the moon orbits the earth.

1932: Alexander Oliver Rankine delivering the lectures on ‘The round of the waters’

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(Used with permission from Royal Institution)

British physicist Alexander Oliver Rankine’s lectures covered water in all its states and his spectacular demonstrations led to acclaim in the press. Here, the picture depicts the physicist showing how snow is formed, by plunging a red-hot poker into meta fuel (a solid fuel apparently widely used) to evaporate it, before it re-condenses in fluffy white particles in the air. It’s not one to try at home, although at the time, children were apparently encouraged to do so. In another intriguing demonstration Rankine proved that there was enough water vapour in the Royal Institution Lecture Theatre for someone to ‘wash comfortably’; he used similar technology to develop FIDO, used to clear runways of fog during the Second World War.

1936: Geoffrey Ingram Taylor’s lecture series on ‘Ships’

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(Used with permission from Royal Institution)

In early December 1936, physicist Geoffrey Ingram Taylor was invited to the BBC studio at Alexandra Palace, north London, to showcase some of the demonstrations he was planning for his Christmas lectures; regular television broadcasts from the BBC had only begun a month before in November 1936, so this may have been the first ever scientific programme on the BBC.  This image, of a contemporary diving suit, is taken from the first lecture, when a small boy was asked to walk in the weighted divers’ boots (he couldn’t). Taylor’s lectures covered the history of ships and how sailing ships use wind power to move. As a child, Taylor himself had built a full-size sailing boat in his third-floor bedroom and, having lowered it out of the window, managed to sail from London to Southend.

1937: Sir Julian Huxley lecturing on ‘Rare animals and the disappearance of wildlife’

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(Used with permission from Royal Institution)

At the time of his lecture, Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous) was Secretary of the London Zoological Society. He was very active in campaigning to protect endangered species, subsequently going on to help found the World Wildlife Fund. He didn’t hold his punches, showing a film of baby seals being clubbed to death in the artic. He also brought with him a multitude of live specimens from London zoo: snakes and crocodiles, a red kite (which at the time was almost extinct in Britain) and mice from the Faroe Isles with unusually large feet. However, the biggest reaction came from Max the lion cub, who was brought in so Huxley could show spots on a young lion. Here, we see children surrounding Max, with one lucky girl stroking him like a pet, something which wouldn’t be allowed today.

1938: James Kendall lecturing on ‘Young chemists and great discoveries’

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(Used with permission from Royal Institution)

Chemist James Kendall used his lectures to talk about the early careers of some great chemists from history, including Humphry Davy, a former Ri professor who discovered highly reactive elements such as sodium and potassium using electrochemistry. Kendall delighted in recreating some of their spectacular demonstrations, which brings us to something else which wouldn’t be allowed today. Known as ‘the ordeal by fire’, this young volunteer is about to put his hands into a stream of molten lead. He could do it without being burned because he had coated his hands in water, which evaporated on contact with the lead and created a thin layer of steam that acted as a protective barrier. This known as the ‘Leidenfrost effect’ and only works if conditions are absolutely right; it’s definitely not something you should try at home.

1961: Lawrence Bragg presenting his lectures on ‘Electricity’, assisted by Bill Coates

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(Painting by Terence Cuneo/used with permission from Royal Institution)

Almost 30 years after his first Christmas lectures series, Nobel Prize-winner Lawrence Bragg made a welcome return. The picture shows his demonstration of ‘The Faraday Cage’, an example of insulation (and made famous again earlier this month by an employee at an Australian company who hid his mobile phone in a crisp packet, making him un-contactable while he played golf during work hours). Another demonstration featured the ‘radio pill’, a pressure sensitive capsule with a radio transmitter that sent a noise to a speaker when pressed. Bragg’s assistant, Bill Coates, swallowed it and children were allowed to punch him in the stomach to hear the squeaks from the speaker. It was such a popular demo that they had another round after the lectures. As Bragg wrote in letters after the lecture, including one to a future Christmas lecturer, Heinz Wolff: “The radio pill was an uproarious success… the children almost doubled up my assistant Coates with their enthusiastic thumps.” Yet another example of something that wouldn’t be allowed today! The electrostatic balls in the picture are made from toilet cistern balls and the 1960s equivalent of blu tack. They remain on display next to this painting outside the Ri’s historic Lecture Theatre. The painter, Terence Cuneo, was better known for painting railways and was an official artist at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  He included the figure of a mouse in all his paintings, including this one.

2014: Danielle George delivering her lectures on ‘How to hack your home’

Photography by Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd.

(Credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography/used with permission from Ri)

The Christmas lectures were delivered by a female lecturer for the first time in 1994. Pictured is Professor Danielle George, who became the sixth female lecturer 20 years later. Her lectures were themed on how to customise household items to create new things and solve all sorts of problems. She brought the lectures right into the modern age with a robot orchestra and possibly the largest-scale demonstration in the lectures’ history, when the Shell Building in central London was turned into a giant game of Tetris.

While it took nearly 150 years before we saw the first female lecturer, today it’s down to who’s the best scientist for the job and four out of the last eight lecturers have been women, including the lecturer in 2017: neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott. Through a lecture entitled ‘Language of Life’, Professor Scott will unpick the amazing ways we have honed our bodies to meet our unstoppable urge to communicate.

The 2017 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, with Professor Sophie Scott, will be broadcast on BBC Four, on 26, 27 and 28 December at 8pm.

To read more about how children’s eyes have been opened to the wonders of science by the Ri’s Christmas Lectures, visit sciencefocus.com

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In 2018, a series of public lectures at the Ri will mark the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s publication. The character of Professor Waldman, Victor Frankenstein’s professor of chemistry at the University of Ingolstadt in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is believed to be modelled on Humphry Davy, second professor of Chemistry at the Ri. Mary Shelley visited the Royal Institution to hear Davy speak.