Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture in 1856.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a series of lectures on a single topic, which have been held at the Royal Institution in London each year since 1825, missing 1939–42 due to the Second World War. The lectures present scientific subjects to a general audience, including young people, in an informative and entertaining manner. Michael Faraday initiated the first Christmas Lecture series in 1825. This came at a time when organised education for young people was scarce. Faraday presented a total of nineteen series in all.


A close-up image of a candle showing the wick and the various parts of the flame; Michael Faraday lectured on "The Chemical History of a Candle".

The Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures were first held in 1825,[1] and have continued on an annual basis since then with the exception of during the Second World War.[2] They are hosted each year at the Royal Institution itself, with the exception of during 1929 and between 2005–2006, each time due to refurbishment of the building.[3] They were created by Michael Faraday, and he went on to host the lecture season on nineteen occasions. Other notable lecturers have included Desmond Morris (1964), Sir David Attenborough (1973), Heinz Wolff (1975), Carl Sagan (1977), George Porter (1985), Richard Dawkins (1991), Baroness Susan Greenfield (1994), Dame Nancy Rothwell (1998), Monica Grady (2003), Sue Hartley (2009), Alison Woollard (2013), and Danielle George (2014).[4][5]

The props for the lectures are designed and created by the Ri's science demonstration technician, a post which Faraday previously held. The technician is informed of the general subject of the lectures during spring, but the specifics aren't settled until September, with the recordings made in mid-December.[4] By 2009, the lectures had expanded to a series of five sessions each year. However, in 2010 the Royal Institution cut back on costs as it had become over £2 million in debt. These cost cutting measures included the budget allotted to the Christmas Lectures. This resulted in a reduction from five sessions to three.[6]


The Christmas Lectures were first televised in 1936 on the BBC's fledgling Television Service.[7] They were broadcast on BBC Two from 1966–1999 and Channel 4 from 2000–2004. In 2000 one of the lectures was broadcast live for the first time. Following the end of Channel 4's contract to broadcast the lectures, there were concerns that they might simply be dropped from scheduling as the channel was negotiating with the Royal Institution over potential changes to the format, while the BBC announced that "The BBC will not show the lectures again, because it feels the broadcasting environment has moved on in the last four years."[8] Channel Five subsequently agreed to show the lectures from 2005–2008, an announcement which was met with derision from academics.[9] The lectures were broadcast on More4 in 2009. In 2010, the lectures returned to the BBC after a ten-year absence from the broadcaster, and have been shown on BBC Four each year since then.[10]

List of Christmas lectures

The following is a complete list of the Christmas Lectures as of December 2015:

Year Lecturer(s) Title of series
1825 John Millington Natural Philosophy
1826 John Wallis[11] Astronomy
1827 Michael Faraday Chemistry
1828 J. Wood Architecture
1829 Michael Faraday Electricity
1830 Thomas Webster Geology
1831 James Rennie Zoology
1832 Michael Faraday Chemistry
1833 John Lindley Botany
1834 William Thomas Brande Chemistry
1835 Michael Faraday Electricity
1836 William Thomas Brande Chemistry of the Gases
1837 Michael Faraday Chemistry
1838 John Wallis[11] Astronomy
1839 William Thomas Brande The Chemistry of the Atmosphere and the Ocean
1840 John Frederic Daniell The First Principles of Franklinic Electricity
1841 Michael Faraday The Rudiments of Chemistry
1842 William Thomas Brande The Chemistry of the Non-Metallic Elements
1843 Michael Faraday First Principles of Electricity
1844 William Thomas Brande The Chemistry of the Gases
1845 Michael Faraday The Rudiments of Chemistry
1846 John Wallis[11] The Rudiments of Astronomy
1847 William Thomas Brande The Elements of Organic Chemistry
1848 Michael Faraday The Chemical History of a Candle
1849 Robert Walker The Properties of Matter and the Laws of Motion
1850 William Thomas Brande The Chemistry of Coal
1851 Michael Faraday Attractive Forces
1852 Chemistry
1853 Voltaic Electricity
1854 The Chemistry of Combustion
1855 The Distinctive Properties of the Common Metals
1856 Attractive Forces
1857 Static Electricity
1858 The Metallic Properties
1859 The Various Forces of Matter and their Relations to Each Other
1860 The Chemical History of a Candle
1861 John Tyndall Light
1862 Edward Frankland Air and Water
1863 John Tyndall Electricity at Rest and Electricity in Motion
1864 Edward Frankland The Chemistry of a Coal
1865 John Tyndall Sound
1866 Edward Frankland The Chemistry of Gases
1867 John Tyndall Heat and Cold
1868 William Odling The Chemical Changes of Carbon
1869 John Tyndall Light
1870 William Odling Burning and Unburning
1871 John Tyndall Ice, Water, Vapour and Air
1872 William Odling Air and Gas
1873 John Tyndall The Motion and Sensation of Sound
1874 John Hall Gladstone The Voltaic Battery
1875 John Tyndall Experimental Electricity
1876 John Hall Gladstone The Chemistry of Fire
1877 John Tyndall Heat, Visible and Invisible
1878 James Dewar A Soap Bubble
1879 John Tyndall Water and Air
1880 James Dewar Atoms
1881 Robert Stawell Ball The Sun, the Moon and the Planets
1882 John Tyndall Light and the Eye
1883 James Dewar Alchemy in Relation to Modern Science
1884 John Tyndall The Sources of Electricity
1885 James Dewar The Story of a Meteorite
1886 The Chemistry of Light and Photography
1887 Robert Stawell Ball Astronomy
1888 James Dewar Clouds and Cloudland
1889 Arthur Rücker Electricity
1890 James Dewar Frost and Fire
1891 John Gray McKendrick Life in Motion; or the Animal Machine
1892 Robert Stawell Ball Astronomy
1893 James Dewar Air: Gaseous and Liquid
1894 John Ambrose Fleming The Work of an Electric Current
1895 John Gray McKendrick Sound, Hearing and Speech
1896 Sylvanus Phillips Thompson Light, Visible and Invisible
1897 Oliver Lodge The Principles of the Electric Telegraph
1898 Robert Stawell Ball Astronomy
1899 Charles Vernon Boys Fluids in Motion and at Rest
1900 Robert Stawell Ball Great Chapters from the Book of Nature
1901 John Ambrose Fleming Waves and Ripples in Water, Air and Aether
1902 Henry Selby Hele-Shaw Locomotion : On the Earth, Through the Water, in the Air
1903 Edwin Ray Lankester Extinct Animals
1904 Henry Cunynghame Ancient and Modern Methods of Measuring Time
1905 Herbert Hall Turner Astronomy
1906 William Duddell Signalling to a Distance
1907 David Gill Astronomy, Old and New
1908 William Stirling The Wheel of Life
1909 William Duddell Modern Electricity
1910 Sylvanus Phillips Thompson Sound: Musical and Non-Musical
1911 Peter Chalmers Mitchell The Childhood of Animals
1912 James Dewar Christmas Lecture Epilogues
1913 Herbert Hall Turner A Voyage in Space
1914 Charles Vernon Boys Science in the Home
1915 Herbert Hall Turner Wireless Messages from the Stars
1916 Arthur Keith The Human Machine Which All Must Work
1917 John Ambrose Fleming Our Useful Servants : Magnetism and Electricity
1918 D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson The Fish of the Sea
1919 William Henry Bragg The World of Sound
1920 John Arthur Thomson The Haunts of Life
1921 John Ambrose Fleming Electric Waves and Wireless Telephony
1922 Herbert Hall Turner Six Steps Up the Ladder to the Stars
1923 William Henry Bragg Concerning the Nature of Things
1924 Francis Balfour-Browne Concerning the Habits of Insects
1925 William Henry Bragg Old Trades and New Knowledge
1926 Archibald Vivian Hill Nerves and Muscles: How We Feel and Move
1927 Edward Andrade Engines
1928 Alexander Wood Sound Waves and their Uses
1929 Stephen Glanville How Things Were Done in Ancient Egypt
1930 Arthur Mannering Tyndall The Electric Spark
1931 William Henry Bragg The Universe of Light
1932 Alexander Oliver Rankine The Round of the Waters
1933 James Hopwood Jeans Through Space and Time
1934 William Lawrence Bragg Electricity
1935 Charles Edward Kenneth Mees Photography
1936 Geoffrey Ingram Taylor Ships
1937 Julian Huxley Rare Animals and the Disappearance of Wild Life
1938 James Kendall Young Chemists and Great Discoveries
1939–1942 No lectures due to the Second World War
1943 Edward Andrade Vibrations and Waves
1944 Harold Spencer Jones Astronomy in our Daily Life
1945 Robert Watson-Watt Wireless
1946 Hamilton Hartridge Colours and How We See Them
1947 Eric Keightly Rideal Chemical Reactions: How They Work
1948 Frederic Bartlett The Mind at Work and Play
1949 Percy Dunsheath The Electric Current
1950 Edward Andrade Waves and Vibrations
1951 James Gray How Animals Move
1952 F. Sherwood Taylor How Science Has Grown
1953 John Ashworth Ratcliffe The Uses of Radio Waves
1954 Frank Whittle The Story of Petroleum
1955 Harry W. Melville Big Molecules
1956 Harry Baines Photography
1957 Julian Huxley and James Fisher Birds
1958 John Ashworth Ratcliffe, James M. Stagg,
Robert L. F. Boyd,
Graham Sutton,
George E. R. Deacon,
Gordon de Quetteville Robin
International Geophysical Year
1959 Thomas Allibone The Release and Use of Atomic Energy
1960 Vernon Ellis Cosslett Seeing the Very Small
1961 William Lawrence Bragg Electricity
1962 R. E. D. (Richard Evelyn Donohue) Bishop Vibration
1963 Ronald King Energy
1964 Desmond Morris Animal Behaviour
1965 Bernard Lovell, Francis Graham-Smith,
Martin Ryle, Antony Hewish
Exploration of the Universe
1966 Eric Laithwaite The Engineer in Wonderland
1967 Richard L. Gregory The Intelligent Eye
1968 Philip Morrison Gulliver's Laws: The Physics of Large and Small
1969 George Porter Time Machines
1970 John Napier Monkeys Without Tails: A Giraffe's Eye-view of Man
1971 Charles Taylor Sounds of Music: the Science of Tones and Tune
1972 Geoffrey G. Gouriet Ripples in the Ether: The Science of Radio Communication
1973 David Attenborough The Language of Animals
1974 Eric Laithwaite The Engineer Through the Looking Glass
1975 Heinz Wolff Signals from the Interior
1976 George Porter The Natural History of a Sunbeam
1977 Carl Sagan The Planets
1978 Erik Christopher Zeeman Mathematics into Pictures
1979 Eric M. Rogers Atoms for Engineering Minds: A Circus of Experiments
1980 David Chilton Phillips
with Max Perutz in Lecture 5
The Chicken, the Egg and the Molecules
1981 Reginald Victor Jones From Magna Carta to Microchip
1982 Colin Blakemore Common Sense
1983 Leonard Maunder Machines in Motion
1984 Walter Bodmer The Message of the Genes
1985 John David Pye Communicating
1986 Lewis Wolpert Frankenstein's Quest: Development of Life
1987 John Meurig Thomas and David Phillips Crystals and Lasers
1988 Gareth Roberts The Home of the Future
1989 Charles Taylor Exploring Music
1990 Malcolm Longair Origins
1991 Richard Dawkins Growing Up in the Universe
1992 Charles J. M. Stirling Our World Through the Looking Glass
1993 Frank Close The Cosmic Onion
1994 Susan Greenfield Journey to the Centre of the Brain
1995 James Jackson Planet Earth, An Explorer's Guide
1996 Simon Conway Morris The History in our Bones
1997 Ian Stewart The Magical Maze
1998 Nancy Rothwell Staying Alive
1999 Neil F. Johnson Arrows of Time
2000 Kevin Warwick Rise of the Robots
2001 John Sulston The Secrets of Life
2002 Tony Ryan Smart Stuff
2003 Monica Grady Voyage in Space and Time
2004 Lloyd Peck To the End of the Earth: Surviving Antarctic Extremes
2005 John Krebs The Truth About Food
2006 Marcus du Sautoy The Num8er My5teries
2007 Hugh Montgomery Back from the Brink: The Science of Survival
2008 Christopher Bishop Hi-tech Trek
2009 Sue Hartley The 300-Million-Year War
2010 Mark Miodownik Size Matters
2011 Bruce Hood Meet Your Brain[12]
2012 Peter Wothers The Modern Alchemist
2013 Alison Woollard Life Fantastic
2014 Danielle George Sparks will fly: How to Hack your Home
2015 Kevin Fong How to survive in space


  1. Cole, Rupert (14 December 2012). "Science and Christmas: a forgotten Victorian romance". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  2. "History of the Christmas Lectures". The Royal Institution. Retrieved 22 April 2015.
  3. Highfield, Roger (16 July 2007). "Through the keyhole of the Royal Institution". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  4. 1 2 Baxter, Elizabeth (18 December 2009). "The secrets behind the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  5. Professor from Newcastle becomes only sixth woman to present Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Newcastle Chronicle, 2014-08-19
  6. Sample, Ian (12 August 2010). "Cash-strapped Royal Institution scales back Christmas lectures". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  8. Adam, David (26 March 2004). "Christmas lectures threat". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  9. Fazackerley, Anna (4 February 2005). "Academics scorn TV lecture move". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  10. "Science lectures back on BBC". The Scotsman. 17 August 2010. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  11. 1 2 3 James, Frank A. J. L. (2007). Christmas at the Royal Institution. World Scientific. p. xvii.
  12. Gjersoe, N. L.; Hood, B (2013). "Changing children's understanding of the brain: A longitudinal study of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures as a measure of public engagement". PLoS ONE. 8 (11): e80928. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080928. PMC 3829909Freely accessible. PMID 24260513.
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