The CHRISTMAS LECTURES®were set up to introduce a young audience to a subject through spectacular demonstrations and they have been inspiring children and adults alike since 1825. They have been given every year since they began, stopping only from 1939 to 1942, during the blitz in World War II when it was too dangerous for children to come into central London.
The lectures started with very little fanfare and no one could have predicted how popular they would become. In the 1820s there was very little organised education for young people, especially in science. Michael Faraday himself left school when he was about 13 and continued to educate himself by going to science lectures whenever he could. There had been afternoon lecture courses for adults at the Ri since 1800 and probably some people brought their children along, but in 1825 someone had the idea of putting on lectures during the holiday breaks aimed at ‘ a juvenile auditory'.
In the first year a course of 22 lectures during Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide was advertised but by 1827, when Faraday gave his first series, the lectures had been reduced to a short series of demonstration lectures at Christmas. In the 19th century the lectures were mostly given by Ri Professors; Faraday gave the lectures 19 times. This is the most series given by one person, but he often lectured on the same subjects and re-used his notes.
In 1861 Faraday gave his last series of lectures 'On the Chemical History of a Candle' and was persuaded to allow them to be published as a book. The ‘Candle' has never been out of print and a new edition was recently published to mark the 150th anniversary. Throughout the 20th century the CHRISTMAS LECTURES® were often published as books, providing popular introductions to scientific subjects to a wider audience and since 1966 they have been broadcast on TV. Many world-famous scientists and science communicators have given the lectures since then, including Carl Sagan, David Attenborough and George Porter.
A list of all the past CHRISTMAS LECTURES® series and Lecturers is available as a pdf.
For more information on the history of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES® and a collection of key published lectures see Christmas at the Royal Institution edited by Professor Frank James.
The Ri is in the process of re-digitising the its archive of CHRISTMAS LECTURES® films and making them available for free on the Ri Channel.
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