History of Research at the Ri

Explore the history of groundbreaking scientific research at the Ri.

About

The Royal Institution was founded to introduce new technologies and teach science to the general public through lectures and demonstrations. Humphry Davy, one of the first Professors, established scientific research as a crucial part of the Ri's identity, something never envisaged by the founders of the institution.

Over the last two centuries our building and labs have been home to famous scientists, such as Michael Faraday, who made discoveries here which have helped shape the modern world.

  • Drawing of Willam Thomas Brande's laboratory

    William Thomas Brande's laboratory

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Painting of Michael Faraday in his laboratory

    A painting of Faraday in his laboratory by Harriet Moore

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Photograph of James Dewar's laboratory

    James Dewar's Laboratory

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • 1930s laboratory

    The Ri laboratory in the 1930s

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Scientists in 1930s laboratory

    The third floor laboratory in the 20th century

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Laser equipment in laboratory

    A laser being used in the laboratory

    Credit: Royal Institution

1799 - 1829

Early scientific research

Scientific research was established as a crucial feature of the Royal Institution early in its history by Humphry Davy.

The Royal Institution was founded to introduce new technologies and teach science to the general public. While much of the early effort concentrated on strictly utilitarian work, it was quickly realised that the Ri needed to have a broader public appeal and so Humphry Davy, who had made his name working on nitrous oxide (laughing gas), was appointed Professor of Chemistry in 1802. Davy established scientific research as a crucial feature of the Royal Institution, using the new science of electrochemistry to isolate several new elements.

In 1812 Davy married a wealthy heiress, he continued his research at the Ri but retired as Professor and was replaced by William Thomas Brande. The next year Michael Faraday was appointed as laboratory assistant, initially assisting Davy with projects but later began to taking on his own projects. Faraday was appointed acting Superintendent of the House in 1821, the same year he invented the first electric motor. However this invention led to a falling out with Davy and Faraday concentrated on other projects until after Davy's death in Geneva in 1829.

Key discoveries

1807 - Davy isolates sodium and potassium
1808 - Davy discovers calcium, magnesium, boron and barium
1815 - Davy and Faraday work on miners' safety lamp
1821 - Faraday discovers electro-magnetic rotations
1823 - Faraday liquifies gasses for the first time
1825 - Faraday isolates and identifies benzene

1829 - 1896

Faraday and his successors

In the 19th century, research was carried out by a series of professors working by themselves or with assistants.

Through the 19th century the research in the Royal Institution's laboratories was carried out by individual professors or researchers, working by themselves or with assistants. The laboratories were some of the best equipped in Europe at this time and were made famous by the important discoveries made by Michael Faraday in the 1830s and 40s. These included electro-magnetic induction in 1831, leading to the invention of the first electric generator and transformer, and the magneto-optical effect and diamagnetism in 1845.

In 1853 John Tyndall was appointed as Professor of Natural Philosophy and began his own research projects alongside Faraday in the laboratory. During his career he undertook important work on diamagnetism as well as investigating such diverse topics as radiant heat, spontaneous generation and the movement of glaciers. Other professors appointed in this period include T.H. Huxley, Edward Frankland, John Hall Gladstone, James Dewar and John William Strutt.

Apart from their own research, Ri Professors were often called upon to undertake research for or to advise government departments and organisations such as Trinity House.

Key discoveries

1831 - Faraday discovers electro-magnetic induction and creates the first electric generator and transformer
1834 - Faraday introduces scientific terms such as eletrode, cathode, anode and ion.
1836 - Faraday creates and tests the Faraday Cage
1845 - Faraday discovers the magneto-optical effect, leading to the development of field theory of electromagnetism
1860s - Tyndall works on radiant heat and discovers what is now known as the 'greenhouse effect'.

1896 - 1923

The early Davy Faraday Research Laboratory

Scientific research at the Ri was given a massive boost by Ludwig Mond, who established the DFRL.

By the late 19th century research practice was shifting away from individuals working with one or two assistants towards the current situation, where the head of a laboratory is supported by a large staff or researchers and students and the Royal Institution had become one among a number of larger scientific institutions and was in need of modernisation.

Scientific research at the Ri was given a massive boost through an endowment from the industrial chemist Ludwig Mond who established the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory. No.20 Albemarle street was purchased and converted to house the new laboratories and offices.

James Dewar and John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh were appointed as joint directors of the new DFRL. Dewar in particular conducted much of his research within the new lab facilities, this included his liquifaction of hydrogen in 1898 and his attempts to create liquid helium in the early 20th century.

The expanded laboratories provided resources for a larger group of researchers, but despite the new facilities the old system continued with scientists working on their own projects. Dewar worked on his research with only his assistants such as John Edward Heath, a practice he continued up until his death in 1923.

Key discoveries

1892 - Dewar invents the 'thermos' flask
1894 - Rayleigh and Sir William Ramsay isolate argon
1896 - Davy Faraday Research Laboratory is opened
1898 - Dewar creates liquid hydrogen for the first time
1899 - Dewar creates solid hydrogen

1923 - 1954

William Bragg and X-ray Crystallography

William Bragg took over the DFRL in 1923, building it up to become a leading X-ray crystallography laboratory.

William Henry Bragg took over the Directorship of the DFRL in 1923, upon the death of James Dewar. Dewar had refused to retire and by the time he died the laboratory had almost ceased to function. This left effectively a blank canvas for Bragg to work with and he used the opportunity to build up the world's leading X-ray crystallography laboratory, modernising both the structure of the team and the laboratories themselves.

Bragg himself, with his son Lawrence, had worked out how to determine the structure of crystals using their X-ray diffraction patterns in 1912-13. At the RI he built up a formidable team of crystallographers who went on to make significant contributions to the subject in their own right and to teach others. 

Bragg's students included Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin and J.D. Bernal. Lonsdale's work was particularly significant to the RI as in 1925 she determined the structure of Benzene, a century after Faraday had identified it as a substance.

After Bragg's death in 1942 the Directorship was held in quick succession by Henry Hallett Dale, Eric Keightley Rideal and Edward Neville da Costa Andrade.

Research topics

1923-1942 - Research into the structure of organic compounds
1925 - Kathleen Lonsdale identifies the structure of benzene

1954 - 1966

Lawrence Bragg and Lysozyme

After a period of turmoil, Lawrence Bragg became Director of the DFRL, building up a strong research team.

After the death of William Bragg, Kathleen Lonsdale carried on research at the RI, however she left immediately after the war. By 1954, after three directors in quick succession, the research was almost halted. Lawrence Bragg, son of William and the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize (at age 25,) moved from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge to sort out the mess. He concentrated on building up a strong research team of crystallographers. 

Two of Bragg's researchers, Max Perutz, and John Kendrew remained at the Cavendish but were also appointed Readers in the Royal Institution and there was close collaboration between the two laboratories. The structures haemoglobin and myoglobin were determined through these  collaborations, with the experimental work taking place at the DFRL. Perutz and Kendrew won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery in 1962.

Another major piece of work carried out by Bragg's team, particularly by David Phillips and Louise Johnson, was the determination of the structure of lysozyme. This substance, which is found in tears and egg-white, was the first enzyme to have its structure completely determined.

Research topics

1954-66 - Research into the structure of organic compounds
1958 - Structure of myoglobin determined
1959 - Structure of haemoglobin determined
1960s - Structure of lysozyme determined

1966 - 2008

Research into reactions and materials

George Porter pioneered techniques in photo-chemistry while his successors studied the chemistry of materials.

George Porter became Director of the DFRL in 1966. His research pioneered techniques to study chemical molecules which exist for a fraction of a second. He used a process known as flash photolysis where a flash of light creates an initial reaction and a second flash detects the results of the first. This was a major advance in understanding how chemical reactions happened.

The invention of the laser in 1960 meant that the bursts of light could be controlled very accurately. Porter secured on of the first lasers in the country for his work and was able to capture reactions lasting only a nanosecond. By the 1970s Porter's researchers were using more sophisticated lasers and were working on reactions lasting picoseconds, 10-12 of a second.

After Porter, the post of Director of the DFRL was held by John Meurig Thomas, Peter Day and Richard Catlow research shifted away from photo-chemistry to physical chemistry, specifically to materials science. 

In 2008, Catlow became the Dean of Science at UCL and Quentin Pankhurst was appointed as Director of the DFRL where he heads a multi-disciplinary team working in the field of healthcare biomagnetics.

Research topics

1966-1986 - Photo-chemical research
1960s - Use of very early laser in experiments
1986-2008 - Physical chemistry and materials science
2008 - Healthcare biomagnetics

Research Directors

A list of past Directors of the original Laboratory and the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory.

View the list

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