Skip to content

By Alison Boyle on

Christmas Science Spectaculars

Hope everyone enjoyed the holidays. If you got a bit bored of watching re-runs of the soaps while chewing on leftover turkey, you could have entertained yourself by tuning in to the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures.

This year, materials scientist Mark Miodownik talked about everything from chocolate to elephants and you can still catch the lectures on  BBC i-Player.

The RI’s Christmas Lectures began in 1825 and have continued ever since, pausing only during World War II. The roll of past lecturers includes such famous names as David Attenborough and Carl Sagan. But the person who’ll always be most associated with the Christmas Lectures is their founder Michael Faraday, with 19 of the annual series to his name.

Faraday first gave the festive lectures himself in 1827-8. His series of family lectures on chemistry wowed audiences and the press. By 1855, when this lithograph was made, lecture-goers included such distinguished guests as Prince Albert.

Faraday's lecture of 27 December 1855 (Science Museum)

The Royal Polytechnic Institution, famous for ‘abominable smells and… the odd explosion’, also started running a popular series of Christmas lectures. Such shows became a festive feature at institutions around the country.

An Illustrated London News engraving of 'Christmas at the Polytechnic', 1858 (Science Museum)

The RI lectures aren’t the only festive legacy of the 19th century – the aforementioned Prince Albert is often credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain. Actually, some people (including the royal family) had adopted the German tradition years before, but it was Albert and the popular Queen Victoria who made it widely fashionable. I guess it’s about time to get round to vacuuming up those pine needles…

Enjoying the Christmas tree, c.1948 (NMeM / Photographic Advertising / Science & Society)