Resurrecting the Braggs

As the Ri launches the newly digitised Bragg film archive, Curator of Collections Charlotte New discusses the excitement and intrigue of delving into the unknown and unearthing these gems.

  • Lawrence Bragg presenting Properties of Matter

    Credit: Royal Institution

When you walk through the archival vault of the Royal Institution you are struck by the large number of cardboard boxes which line the shelves. These are no ordinary boxes, but long-term preservation boxes, cradling delicate fragments of history that lie within. A wealth of information is hidden from view but available on request to search, study and enjoy.

The Ri’s archives hold a wealth of information across a number of formats. As in most archives the majority of the collection would be in paper form but there is also a substantial 16mm film collection to go along with the personal papers, photographs and rare books. This film collection was largely a mystery to us; being on 16mm film format meant that without unrolling metres of film we didn’t know what was held within the unlabelled canisters.

2013 was the 100th anniversary of William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg’s crystallography research which eventually led them to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915 'for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays'. 

Throughout their lifetimes this father and son team pioneered the field of crystallography as well advancing the impact of science communication. They played a major part in the history of the Ri as well, both being Director of the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory and Superintendent of the House, Henry from 1923-1942 and Lawrence from 1954-1966. In those roles they were also advocates for the Ri’s history as well as science communication through the CHRISTMAS LECTURES and our schools' programme, which Lawrence founded.

In the anniversary year we wanted to see if there was any material within our 16mm film collection which could show the work of these two remarkable men. We set out on a hunt through canisters to identify what films might possibly relate to the work of the Braggs.

It was a joy to conclude that there was potentially 14 hours’ worth of film footage which related to the development of crystallography or the Braggs in general. Due to the medium we suspected that the majority of the films would feature or relate to Lawrence but there was always a hope that Henry might appear in some way as well.

  • soap film screenshot

    A still from the soap films experiments.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Lawrence Bragg presenting Properties of Matter

    Lawrence Bragg presenting Properties of Matter.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Crystals

    The collection contains a wealth of crystallography research films.

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Bubble rafts

    An example of the bubble raft experimental films.

    Credit: Royal Institution

A grant was applied for and awarded to digitise these 72 rolls of unknown film. There was always a potential that some of the film might contain programmes which we knew something about, like Lawrence Bragg’s series on ‘Properties of Matter’. I had always hoped that we would also find some unknown hidden gems among the film rolls and I am delighted to say we succeeded.

It has been a painstaking task, firstly to get the films converted to a useable format ready for showing online but also to evaluate and interpret what has been discovered. A fascinating journey where we have been able to uncover snippets of Lawrence Bragg’s private life and his interaction with his grandchildren (see the film trims from ‘50 Years A Winner’) but also finding films showing some of his significant teaching applications through his development of bubble raft models.

We have also quite surprisingly uncovered two films which not only show but contain sound of William Henry Bragg, a lovely surprise for the team here! One of these films shows Henry giving a speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Faraday’s discovery of electro-magnetic induction in 1931. Large celebrations occurred that year, including an exhibition held at the Royal Albert Hall filled with the technological developments all based on Faraday’s ring or generator. In this film you can see Henry talking about the significance of Faraday’s discovery and even showing some of Faraday’s original scientific notebooks and apparatus which are still held and displayed at the Ri today.


Unearthing these films has been a fascinating journey and I hope you enjoy watching the results. The films show the work of two extraordinary men and their passion for science and science communication. Lawrence Bragg once commented that you should ‘never talk about science, show it to them’; these films do just that.

Browse the archive now.

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