Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (partially lost television coverage of scientific presentations; 1966-1973)

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David Attenborough during his 1973 Christmas Lectures titled "The Language of Animals".

Status: Partially Lost

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a series of annual scientific presentations centring around a key topic. Having first been established in 1825, the Christmas Lectures were first televised in 1936, before becoming a British television mainstay since 1966. But despite their cultural significance in the United Kingdom, 31 episodes are confirmed to no longer exist within any known archives.


Michael Faraday, the man responsible for various electrical revelations including the electric motor's invention, is credited for creating the Christmas Lectures in 1825.[1][2][3][4] Held at The Royal Institution in London, they became a critical source of learning, entertainment, and inspiration for many British children who back in the 1800s generally lacked adequate science education.[1][2] Among those was Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, who later delivered the 1936 Christmas Lectures.[3] A preview of his at the Alexandra Palace became the first Christmas Lecture to be televised, airing on 11th December on BBC Television Service.[5][6][3]

Between the 1930s and 1950s, the BBC occasionally broadcast special edition Christmas Lectures on television.[3] However, they did not become a regular television event until 1966, when the Controller of BBC Two, David Attenborough, approved the annual airing of every Christmas Lecture on the fledgling television channel.[3][6] The early series generally consisted of six lectures each, though later ones have varied in total episodes.[6] Originally broadcast on BBC Two, and later on Channel 4 and Channel 5, the Christmas Lectures have since annually aired on BBC Four since 2010.[3] Declared "national treasures from a golden age of broadcasting" by Attenborough, the Christmas Lectures hold the distinction of being the oldest continuing scientific lectures, as well as being the second oldest running scientific television show.[7][3]

The Missing Lectures

The Royal Institution would later collaborate with the BBC to upload all the latter's recorded broadcasts into an online archive.[6][7] This move resulted in many Christmas Lectures broadcasts becoming found media, as previously only half of those airing on BBC television had been available on repeat.[6][7] Hence, many were not publicly available for decades.[6][7] However, the collaboration triggered a troubling revelation: of the Christmas Lectures broadcast by the BBC, 31 episodes airing between 1966 to 1973 were no longer accessible in its own nor from independent archives.[6][7] They along with many other early BBC television shows were victims of the corporation's wiping practices, which saw numerous recordings be erased so that the BBC could re-use its expensive master tapes.[8][6] They have since been labelled as "Missing, believed wiped".[6] Thanks to Radio Times issues, a summary of the missing Christmas Lectures remains.[9][10][11][12][13][14]

The first of these were the inaugural 1966 broadcasts, featuring Professor Eric Laithwaite.[15][9][6][7] Laithwaite was an electrical engineer credited for the breakthrough inventions surrounding the Maglev rail system.[16][15] For the 1966 Christmas Lectures, Laithwaite titled his six Lectures "Engineer in Wonderland", an electrical-based presentation with clear references to Alice in Wonderland.[9][15] In the first episode titled "The White Rabbit", Laithwaite demonstrates a moving magnetic field, with further experiments on it carried over into the second episode, "Only the Grin was Left".[9][15] In one somewhat controversial moment, a child participated in an experiment he suggested, only to let go of the thick ring upon it burning his fingers.[9][15] These, alongside "The Caucus Race", "Curiouser and Curiouser", "If only I were the right size to do it", and "It's the Oldest Rule in the Book", were aired between 27th December 1966 to 7th January 1967 on BBC Two.[9] After being repeated on BBC One between July-August 1967, the episodes were promptly wiped.[9][15][6][7] A few photographs and a book based around the experiments also titled The Engineer in Wonderland remain the only remnants of the episodes.[15]

For 1967, Richard L. Gregory, a Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol and a key influence in visual perception research, presented "The Intelligent Eye".[17][10][6] Episode 1 titled "Ancient Eyes and Simple Brains" saw Gregory analyse a water insect to explain the concept of sight.[10] For "Learning to See Things", Gregory conducted experiments showcasing how the brain must interpret what the eyes reveal to it for one to make sense of the world.[10] Lectures 3 and 4, titled "Playing with Illusions" and "How Illusions Play Games with Us", saw Gregory demonstrate conjuring tricks, optical illusions, and other visual gags before explaining how the brain is misled by these.[10] The latter episode required one don sunglasses to determine the answers of certain illusions.[10] The final lectures were based on the future; in "Human Eyes in Space", demonstrations of the then-latest experiments on improving eyesight and avoiding optical illusions in deep space commenced.[10] Finally, "The Future - Machines that See?" saw a presentation into an early robot that could view and interpret the world, while also presenting a three-dimensional pendulum that again requiring donning sunglasses.[10] The episodes are not believed to have re-aired by the time they were wiped.[10][6]

The 1969 Christmas Lectures were presented by Professor George Porter.[11][6][7] In 1967, he had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for he establishing flash photolysis with fellow recipients Manfred Eigen and Ronald George Wreyford Norrish.[18] His subject was "Time Machines", starting with "In the Beginning... Moving through Time and Space", which explored key knowledge of time through the movement of various items.[11] "Clockwork Harmony" demonstrated the periodic movement of modern time machines through oscillations, and how they can be transformed into waves that enable one to "look at sounds and listen to pictures".[11] The third episode titled "The Tick of the Atom", showcased timekeepers, and the surprising accuracy of some produced chemical and biological clocks.[11] In "Big Time, Little Time", a showcase on how astronomers can view things occurring back in time via examining light and radio waves from a distance.[11] It also proved time can be viewed via telescopes and microscopes.[11] "Faster, Faster" harnessed the newest "time machines" from the Royal Institution to study atoms and substances which can biologically and chemically change in fewer than 1 millionth of a second.[11] Finally, "To the Ends of Time" examined the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and demonstrated whether time can be "reversed" by having participants enter a "Time Machine".[11] While conducted in 1969, these Christmas Lectures only eventually aired from 4th-9th January 1970, and were not repeated again prior to wiping.[11][6][7]

In 1970, Dr John Napier, a prominent primatologist and anatomist credited for redefining classification of human grips, presented "Monkeys Without Tails: A Giraffe’s Eye View of Man".[19][12][6][7] In "Man Has a Very Short Neck and No Tail", Napier brought in chimpanzee Judy to study intelligence among primates, including humanity and noted chimpanzees and gorillas are humanity's closest relatives.[12] For "Man Comes in Several Different Sizes and Shapes", harnessed butterflies and various conjuring tricks to demonstrate evolution and how every human is unique.[12] "Fancy Having to Climb Trees in Order to Eat" saw Napier unveil his Man's Family Tree to detail the characteristics of humanity's ancestors and other primates.[12] In the fourth lecture, "Man Chooses a Sensible Place to Live at Last", survival of the fittest is discussed, while Judy challenges a man on performing tasks like climbing ropes.[12] The comparison of bipedalism and four-legged creatures are made to understand why humanity's walking pattern evolved despite the dangers apparent.[12] Finally, "What's the Idea of Shooting at Us?" assessed the evolution of humanity's hands to the extent that they produced increasingly technological terrors that threaten the species' existence.[12] Originally airing from 3rd-8th January 1971, it was repeated in September-October that same year, before also becoming wiped.[12][6][7][19]

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor, a physicist credited for his crystallography research, did "Exploring Music".[20][13][6] In "Making and Measuring the Waves", different sounds were played to determine whether they can be categorised as music, applying a more "showbiz" approach to his lectures.[13][20] Lecture 2, "From Small Beginnings", focus is given to an examination of how musical sounds begins, and finding deeper mean within sound.[13] Various musical instruments are assessed in "Growing and Changing", and how they all contain their own "signature", doing so by comparing a real Stradivarius violin with a replica.[13] In "Craftsmanship and Technology", emphasis is placed on computer-driven and other technological advances in the production of music.[13] Lecture 5, "On the Way to the Ear", elaborated on the difficulties of creating sound in the best location possible, Taylor using a magic carpet and a concert hall model to explain acoustics science.[13] Finally, "The End of the Journey" looked at how ears can manipulate what humanity interprets, converting sound waves into musical sound.[13] Televised from 2nd-7th January 1972, they were repeated in August-September that same year, before ending up junked.[13][6] One obituary declared that the Christmas Lectures were well-received by the children present, who enthusiastically asked Taylor follow-up questions such as the range of sound travel.[20]

Finally, Attenborough himself hosted the 1973 Christmas Lectures, titled "The Language of Animals".[6] His presentations were risky, as they involved working with animals and children, something generally discouraged in television. Unlike the other missing Christmas Lectures, only one episode of his is missing.[6][7] Titled "Simple Signs and Complicated Communications", it was the fourth lecture and sought to demonstrate ritualisation of communication from animals.[14][6] However, outside of a few re-airings of the other 1973 Christmas Lectures, this episode ultimately never appeared on television screens again.[21][6][7] According to The Royal Institution's Fran Scott, this is because the episode was being aired live on 2nd January 1974,[14] and the BBC somehow accidentally forgot to record it. Thus, the reason behind its disappearance was very similar to the missing 1930s-1950s BBC broadcasts that were transmitted live and never recorded.


Hope remains that the missing Christmas Lectures can one day be recovered.[6][7] On 24th November 2018, Attenborough and the Royal Instituion launched an appeal urging people to investigate whether they may own copies of the lost broadcasts.[7][6] Both the BBC and the Royal Institution believe that some individuals could have captured footage when home video recording was at its infancy.[7][6] A large priority has been placed on the recovery of the Christmas Lectures, with head of BBC Archives Sarah Hayes stating that "They are to science what the missing Doctor Who episodes found a few years ago are to science fiction".[7] But as of the present day, no breakthroughs in finding these episodes have emerged.[6]



The Royal Institution's appeal for the missing Christmas Lectures.

BBC Breakfast reporting on the appeal for the general public to recover the lost Christmas Lectures.

See Also

External Link


  1. 1.0 1.1 Faraday at Home History detailing the creation and purpose of the Christmas Lectures. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  2. 2.0 2.1 BBC Science Focus detailing the principles and success of the Christmas Lectures, including its appeal to children. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 The Royal Institution providing a timeline of Christmas Lectures history, including its connection with television. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  4. Britannica page on Michael Faraday. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  5. The Royal Institution summarising the first televised Christmas Lectures. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 6.23 6.24 6.25 6.26 The Royal Institution's appeal on the missing episodes. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 The Guardian reporting on Attenborough and The Royal Institution's appeal on the recovery of the missing episodes. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  8. The Sundae detailing the practice and history of wiping television tapes. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues listing all airings of the 1966 Christmas Lectures. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues detailing the 1967 Christmas Lectures airings. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7 11.8 11.9 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues detailing the 1969 Christmas Lectures airings. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 12.7 12.8 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues detailing the 1970 Christmas Lectures airings. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues detailing the 1971 Christmas Lectures airings. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues detailing the "Simple Signs and Complicated Communications" broadcast. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 Nothing Tra La La summarising Laithwaite's book based on his 1966 Christmas Lectures. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  16. Northeast Maglev summarising the career of Eric Laithwaite. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  17. The Guardian obituary on Richard Gregory. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  18. The Nobel Prize page on George Porter. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  19. 19.0 19.1 Journal of Autonomy obituary on John Napier. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Archived Independent obituary on John Charles Taylor. Retrieved 27th Mar '23
  21. BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues detailing the re-airings of "The Language of Animals". Retrieved 27th Mar '23