The Christmas Lectures

By Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

The Royal Institution of Great Britain in London introduced its annual series of Christmas Lectures in 1825. Meant to appeal to young audiences, “the juvenile auditory,” these lectures offered extra-curricular science education to children at a time when very little of this programming existed for young people. The lectures provided an actively engaging experience for the audience, and lively demonstrations were a big part of the lecture experience.

Michael Faraday (1792-1867) conceived the lectures, though he had limited formal education. Apprenticed to the bookbinder George Riebau for seven years beginning in 1805, Faraday began reading some of the science books he was binding and performing experiments himself. By 1810, he attended lectures at the City Philosophical Society and then bound his lecture notes into small volumes. Faraday first lectured for the Christmas Lecture series in 1827 and went on to deliver 18 additional sets of lectures. His lectures from 1861, On the Chemical History of a Candle, are part of NYAM’s collections.


The title page of the 1861 lectures. Click to enlarge.

Many of the lectures were published and we have a variety of those volumes. John McKendrick offered a series of six lectures called Life in Motion about physiology during the 1891-92 Christmas holidays.


A page from John McKendrick’s lectures. Click to enlarge.

The frontispiece from J. A. Fleming’s lectures, Waves and Ripples in Water, Air, and Aether (1902), gives a sense of what the demonstrations must have been like. In his preface, Fleming acknowledges that the printed volumes do not convey the same excitement of the actual demonstrations, being “destitute of the attractions furnished by successful experiments,” but he still hopes that they will be a useful tool for readers (p. viii).


The frontispiece from J. A. Fleming’s lectures. Click to enlarge.

The Christmas Lectures have been given almost every year since 1825, with the exception of an interruption from 1939 through 1942 because of the Second World War. H. Hartridge gave the lectures in 1946, and chose as his topic Colours and How We See Them (1949) because he wanted to recall a happier past and encourage thoughts of a better future. “Which of all things that we had pre-war are just as good as ever they were… At least one answer is: harmony and colour….The rich hues of spring and autumn, the glories of the setting sun, the spectrum of the rainbow” (p. v). As befits a volume on this topic, Hartridge’s volume contains a number of richly colored illustrated plates.


Descriptive text and an illustrated plate from Hartridge’s lectures. Click to enlarge.

Since 1966, the Christmas lectures have been broadcast on television. Those who are young or young at heart can view a number of them online.

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