The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: a brief history © Royal Institution

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: a brief history

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been delighting and captivating audiences since 1825. We look back at some of the notable lecture series of years gone by.

1825 – John Millington

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The idea to hold Christmas Lectures came from Michael Faraday, but he didn’t present the first series. That honour belonged to John Millington, Professor of Mechanics at the Royal Institution. The subject was ‘natural philosophy’, better known today as science.

1848 – Michael Faraday

A hugely popular speaker, Faraday presented 19 series. A transcript of his 1848 lectures, The Chemical History Of A Candle, became one of the most successful popular science books of all time.

Michael Faraday presenting the 1855 lectures, one of his 19 series © Royal Institution
Michael Faraday presenting the 1855 lectures, one of his 19 series © Royal Institution

1881 – Robert Stawell Ball

A professional astronomer and author, Stawell Ball presented ‘The Sun, The Moon And The Planets’ in 1881 – the first of his five Christmas Lectures. Ball’s skill as a lecturer made him a wealthy man, earning him fees from talks all over Britain, Ireland and the USA.

1966 – Eric R Laithwaite

Laithwaite’s series, ‘The Engineer In Wonderland’, was the first to be broadcast on TV. Shown on BBC Two for over 30 years, the series has been on BBC Four since 2010.

1973 – David Attenborough

Attenborough was controller of BBC Two when the Lectures were first televised. In 1973 he’d returned to broadcasting. Attenborough’s six lectures on The Language Of Animals shattered the cardinal rule of showbiz, “never work with animals or children”. Among the creatures on show were a praying mantis, a ring-tailed lemur and an impossibly cute baby orangutan.

Attenborough in full flow during his 1973 lectures © Royal Institution
Attenborough in full flow during his 1973 lectures © Royal Institution

1977 – Carl Sagan

In possibly the most iconic lectures of all, Sagan discussed our place in the Solar System and the game-changing discoveries made by the Mariner 9 and Viking missions to Mars. It was a fertile time for space exploration, with the twin Voyager spacecraft launched just a few months earlier.

1991 – Richard Dawkins

Famous for his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins tackled evolution in his enthralling series ‘Growing Up In The Universe’. He could also boast a celebrity guest – author Douglas Adams made a brief appearance standing on a pair of scales.

1994 – Susan Greenfield

After 169 years, neuroscientist Greenfield was the first woman to present the lectures.

Susan Greenfield was the presenter of the 1994 lectures, 'Journey to the Centre of the Brain' © Royal Institution
Susan Greenfield was the presenter of the 1994 lectures, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Brain’ © Royal Institution

2009 – Sue Hartley

The botanical world was brought memorably to life by Hartley, with chocolate fountains, giant marrows and mouth-burning chillis all helping to demonstrate the ways in which plants cling to survival, and how we’ve manipulated plants to suit our own needs.


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