Flashes, Bangs And Burning Diamonds: The Early Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 26 months ago
Flashes, Bangs And Burning Diamonds: The Early Royal Institution Christmas Lectures
Robert Stawell-Ball lecturing at the Royal Institution around 1900. Photo © the Royal Institution.

Theatrical flashes and bangs ensure the popularity of the Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution and the BBC. But these public science lectures began long before television, when even gaslight was a novelty. Dickens, writing between 1836 and 1870, depicted London with spectres, fog and destitution. But those years also saw unprecedented progress, underpinned by science. Laurence Scales takes a look at some of the earliest Christmas Lectures.

At their inception in 1825 the demonstrations were just called, prissily to our ears, ‘lectures adapted to a juvenile auditory’. Michael Faraday, the professor who grew up in Newington Butts and by his own toil became the sage of his age, was also the most celebrated speaker, giving his first Christmas Lectures in 1827 on Chemistry. The subject had cachet — about a quarter of the chemical elements were discovered in the first half of the 19th century (many at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street).

Through the lectures, privileged Victorian children were introduced to chemistry, heat, giant soap bubbles, astronomy, and more, which would eventually also benefit their less fortunate neighbours. Coincidentally, in this year’s lectures Professor Danielle George takes an up-to-the-minute look at some inventions originated by the Victorians — the light bulb, phone and electric motor.

The Christmas Lectures have always been popular with all ages, as the Illustrated London News of 1860 reported:

"There can be no greater treat to any one fond of scientific pursuits than to attend a course of these lectures. The 'juveniles,' too, are worth seeing — Princes of the blood Royal, savans [sic] of European reputation, future dukes and earls, fair ladies, and grey-headed professors, intense students animated with a love of science, doctors, poets, lawyers , and wits; these usurp the place of boys, mix with them and crowd them on their seats."

Michael Faraday bowed out from the Christmas Lectures in 1860 with a rerun of his famous Chemical History of a Candle. He handed over to John Tyndall who, like Faraday, could be a showman. In one rehearsal he accidentally knocked a flask off the desk and managed to vault over and catch it before it broke. With a bit more practice he managed to include the ‘accident’ in his lecture.

An Illustrated London News correspondent picks up the point of the lectures, as voiced by Tyndall:

"Thought springing to you from this source has a vitality not derivable from mere book knowledge."

For precisely that reason, Faraday was loathe to allow transcripts of his lectures until a craze for séances swept through polite society in the 1850s and convinced him that scientific knowledge had bypassed too many people. His Chemical History is still in print, but we are not yet fad free.

These days we expect the lectures to thrill. And so it was then. In 1867 Tyndall "exhibited some curious experiments with solid carbonic acid — a substance like snow… The lecturer placed a lump of solid substance in his mouth, and by breathing out over it, against the flame of a candle, the latter flickered, turned blue, and went out. Professor Tyndall said that had he inhaled air whilst the solid acid was in his mouth he would have been killed." And in 1877: "Dr Tyndall produced a perfect volcano of sparks by throwing some ignited bark-charcoal on to fused saltpetre."

Dr Peter Wothers (right) burning a diamond at the Christmas Lectures in 2012 — a repeat of a demonstration carried out in 1867 by John Tyndall. Photo © Royal Institution.

Many Victorian demonstrations are worth repeating, including one from the same series which was performed in 2012 — a small diamond, burning in oxygen. You can see a video of it on YouTube.

After 1877 Tyndall started giving the floor to James Dewar, inventor of the travel mug. (At that time he wanted to keep cold liquefied gas in his vacuum flask, not hot coffee.) Dewar had a passion for bubbles. He was able to keep bubbles for months. If you want to try it, we learn from his 1878 lecture that the carbonic acid naturally in the breath tends to damage soap film, so it is better to blow clean air.

Astronomer Robert Stawell Ball, who gave the lectures in 1887, introduced a note of humour. (His claim to fame outside science is a namecheck in Joyce’s impenetrable novel, Ulysses.) Ball quoted Mark Twain: "There was always one thing in astronomy which specially puzzled him, and that was to know how we found out the names of the stars."

Faraday’s Christmas Lectures in 1855. You can clearly see the audience, complete with ‘fair ladies’. Painting by Alexander Blaikley. Image © Royal Institution.

There is a wry prescience in Ball’s lecture when he evokes the magnitude of a journey between the stars: "I shall suppose that a railway is about to be made from London to Alpha Centauri. The length of that railway, of course, we have already stated: it is 20 billions of miles. So I am now going to ask your attention to the simple question as to the fare which it would be reasonable to charge for the journey…"

Ball takes a typical earthly fare per mile and continues, "There is a National Debt with which your fathers are, unhappily, only too well acquainted.

"If you went to the booking office with the whole of this mighty sum in your pocket — but stop a moment: could you carry it in your pocket? Certainly not, if it were in sovereigns… 50 carts, would not be enough… You would want 5,000 carts before you would be able to move off towards the station with your money… but when it was counted, the clerk would tell you that it was not enough, that he must have at least 100 million pounds more."

It makes you wonder what it'd cost at today's fares.

Last Updated 15 December 2015