Prof Danielle George filming 'The light bulb moment' the first of this year's Christmas Lecture series. Credit: Paul Wilkinson

Prof Danielle George filming ‘The light bulb moment’ the first of this year’s Christmas Lecture series. Credit: Paul Wilkinson

Here in Britain the Royal Institution‘s annual Christmas lectures are just that, an institution. For many people, along with the Queen’s speech, it is one of the points around which the festive season turns.

While there had been afternoon lecture courses for adults at the Royal Institution since the turn of the century, it was not until 1825 someone had the idea of putting on lectures during the holiday break to introduce a young audience—11 to 17 year olds—to a subject through ‘spectacular demonstrations.’

An advert in the Times for the very first Christmas Lectures in 1825.

An advert in the Times for the very first Christmas Lectures in 1825.

The first lecture was therefore given just before the Christmas of 1825 by John Millington on the subject of natural philosophy—these days better known as physics— and they have been given every year since in what’s now known as the Faraday Theatre at the Royal Institution’s Albemarle Street building in London, except between 1939 and 1942 when lectures were suspended due to the war and ‘the lack of children in London.’

A packed Faraday Theatre on Ada Lovelace Day 2014. Credit: Paul Clarke

A packed Faraday Theatre on Ada Lovelace Day 2014. Credit: Paul Clarke

The lectures are the centrepiece of science outreach and education here in Britain given by high profile scientists , with past lectures given by scientists such as David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.

This year’s lecture will be given by Prof Danielle George of the University of Manchester—who follows Dr Alison Wollard who gave last year’s lecture on the ‘Life Fantastic‘—making her the sixth woman in 189 years to deliver the Christmas Lectures.

The lectures will highlight the hacks and projects from the maker community.

This year there will be three lectures, taking three great British inventions—the light bulb1, a telephone, and a motor—attempting to show you how to adapt them and transform them to do extraordinary things. For the first time the lectures will feature tinkering, and hacks and projects by the maker community, using the full array of today’s technology—from 3D printers to new materials, to the Raspberry Pi.

The series, titled  ‘Sparks will fly: how to hack your home‘ represents a real departure for the Royal Institution, and may well prove to be a watershed moment in the growth of the maker movement here in the Britain.

The lectures, filmed this week, will be broadcast between Christmas and New Year on BBC Four, and for the first time ever will be accompanied by interactive guides—simple hands-on guides for kitchen scientists aged 8 to 80.  The team at “I’m an Engineer, get me out of here” will also be answering online the science, maths and engineering questions raised by the lectures.

1 A recognisable predecessor to the incandescent lightbulb was demonstrated as early as 1802, at the Royal Institution, by Humphry Davy. However it wasn’t until 1878 that electric lightbulbs came into commercial production with Joseph Swan in England, the first home being lit by the Swan bulb belonged to Lord Armstrong of Cragside. Although developed around the same time, the Edison bulb didn’t follow Swan’s into production until some two years later. When the question is asked “who invented the lightbulb” both Swan and Edison are usually given most of the credit, Edison’s bulb was by far the most efficient, however we know of over twenty inventors that worked tirelessly towards a working bulb around the same time.