Friday, December 14, 2018

Another Christmas Tradition: Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

When you think of a nineteenth century Christmas, you might think about muffled carolers going door to door, couples meeting under the kissing bough, and Yule logs burning in massive stone fireplaces in country houses built ages ago. But chances are, you don’t think about sitting in a lecture hall listening to a natural philosopher extol the virtues of chemistry.

That happened.

The Royal Institution was founded in 1799 by members of the Royal Society who wanted to see their scientific advances be turned beyond the acquisition of knowledge to improve industry and medicine and to interest people outside their exalted sphere. From the beginning, they planned on giving lectures and demonstrations. Sir Humphry Davy, a noted chemist who is, sadly, most often associated with the discovery of laughing gas, insisted on the Royal Institution conducting scientific research as well. Good thing too—research there led to discoveries of new elements and the development of the electric motor.

But lecturing and demonstrating remained a key component of the Royal Institution. The founders built a large lecture theater in 1800, holding lectures for adults. By 1816, they were also holding lectures for medical students in the laboratories themselves. Davy was succeeded by William Thomas Brande in 1813, and he was succeeded by Michael Faraday in 1821. It was Faraday who conceived of the Christmas lectures, a special series of talks given during Christmas holidays, with “spectacular demonstrations,” for youngsters.

The first few years, the lectures were given during all school breaks, but eventually only the Christmas lectures remained. They have been given every year from 1825 until this year, with a break during World War II. Early lecturers shared general information on natural philosophy (all of science), astronomy, chemistry, architecture, electricity, geology, and zoology. Around 1839, however, topics began to narrow, with such intriguing titles as “First principles of Franklinic electricity,” “The chemistry of non-metallic elements,” “The properties of matter and the laws of motion,” and “The chemistry of coal.”

Many of these lectures were given by Faraday, but others were given by his contemporaries. Faraday gave his last lecture in 1860, “On the Chemical History of a Candle,” which later was published in book form. The book is still in print. Prince Albert and two of his sons attended. Queen Victoria did not attend, but if you look closely in the pictures, you will see women at the lectures.

Beginning in the 1870s, the topics once again narrowed. Titles now promised to explain “Burning and unburning,” “The motion and sensation of sound,” “Heat, visible and invisible,” and “A soap bubble.” The 1880 lecture focused on atoms.

Since the 1960s, the lectures have been televised. You can catch up on them at the Royal Institution website.

A new Christmas tradition, perhaps?

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