A Lecture Series for the Makers of Things

A Lecture Series for the Makers of Things
Danielle George and the robotic orchestra. (Credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography)
Prof. Danielle George and the robotic orchestra. (Credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography)

The Royal Institution‘s annual Christmas Lectures have been given every year since 1825—except between 1939 and 1942 when lectures were suspended due to the war and ‘the lack of children in London.’

The lectures have always been about introducing a younger audience—11 to 17 year olds—to a subject through ‘spectacular demonstrations.’ However this year’s the lectures, given by Prof. Danielle George, departed from the traditional—they were  about the maker movement.

Broadcast in between Christmas and New Year on BBC Four up till now they were only available on BBC iPlayer. However the first of the Christmas Lectures has now been made available on the Ri Channel for those of you in the rest of the world beyond the shores of the British Isles. The second and third lectures will be up shortly.

I talked to Olympia Brown—the Royal Institution‘s Science Learning Manager who is responsible for the Christmas Lectures—about this year’s lectures, why they focused on the maker movement, and what they meant to the Royal Institution.

In Britain the Christmas Lectures are an institution that we’ve all grown up with, but do you feel that they’re still relevant today?

Of course I do! But thankfully I don’t have to trust my own instincts on that. The live events are the most popular they have ever been with over 11 ballot applications for every seat we have available. We also get extensive feedback from the TV audiences and I love hearing stories from teenagers who have been inspired by watching the Lectures to study science, which we regularly hear of.

We also work hard to keep the format and content of the Lectures relevant to modern audiences. If you watch an old series of the Lectures (available free in the Ri Channel!) as enjoyable as they are, the pacing and structure of the show is completely different to something we’d write today.

Why did this year’s Christmas Lectures focus on the maker movement, why was this an important topic for you?

We’re always looking for topics that will connect with our audience and inspire them. That could be inspiring on an intellectual level or in a more practical way. The maker movement has so many points of entry that it’s so perfect for that. You could love arts and crafts and want to work in some hi-tech elements to that or you might get fascinated by taking things apart and playing around with them to hack their original purpose. And once you’ve found that way in, it allows explanation of some fundamental scientific and engineering principles.

A key feature of the Christmas Lectures is that we bring the subject alive with demonstrations and props so the maker movement is a rich source of real things that we could bring into the theatre and show people the real thing.

Finally, there was an entire generation of engineers who were switched on to the subject by tinkering. If we can encourage a new generation to tap into the ideas and support that they can find in the maker community hopefully we’ll see the same!

You ran a competition ahead of this year’s lectures for makers. How was the response?

The initial competition was to submit demos that may be featured in the Christmas Lectures. The response was fabulous and a great showcase of the ingenuity of makers from around the world. We’re keeping the site open for the time being to allow people to show off their creations they have made, ideally things they made after being inspired by watching the Lectures.

Did you have a favourite project from the competition that didn’t make it into the Christmas Lectures?

Argh, so many! The one that came the closest was the beautiful LED cube built by the Leeds Hackspace. In the end it was just too big to fit in the Theatre.

YouTube player

The Leeds Hackspace LED cube

The robot arm controlled by minecraft was lovely as it was submitted by a younger maker. The one I’m most likely to have a go at making myself is the bicycle barometer, though I’d hack the settings as I’m not usually too put off by rain!

Do you think this is a theme you’ll return to in the future?

This is just the start of the Royal Institution covering this topic. We have a number of education programmes which will all use the research we’ve done for the Lectures and contacts that we’ve made. This includes UK-wide masterclasses and hands-on sessions in our Young Scientist Centre. We also produced digital resources to accompany the Lectures, including a Vine series called ‘Things to do with stuff‘ so we may well add to that over time.

The Christmas Lectures don’t tend to revisit a specific topic within at least 5 years, so although we may use elements in future years it won’t be the core topic in the near future.

The first of the Christmas Lectures for 2014 is now online on the Ri Channel.

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan