Today, the Christmas Lectures. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A marvelous and wonderfully
appropriate Christmas tradition in London is a set
of public lectures given by the Royal Institution
of London. These so-called Christmas
Lectures on science run during the Holiday
season, and they're meant for young people.
This gift of the Royal Institution to children is
now a venerable Christmas observance in which
science is placed within the grasp of the next
generation. The lectures trace back, interrupted
only by the years of the WW-II London Blitz, to
when they were begun by a still-young Michael Faraday.
The first set of Christmas Lectures was given by
Faraday's close friend J. Wallis. But, during the
next thirty-five years, Faraday presented nineteen
of the sets of lectures. And they've born the stamp
of Faraday's remarkable mind ever since.
That's as it should be. For gentle Michael Faraday
had uncanny scientific insight. He was remarkably
able to cut to the bone and tell children just what
would best reveal the things science had to show
them. He also had an unmistakable sense of theatre.
One stunt would be, without warning, to suddenly
start flinging large metal objects across the room
at a giant electromagnet -- fire tongs, then a
poker. And there they would adhere.
But Faraday was no mere showman. It was he who set
the foundations of modern electrical theory. His
first lectures bore the stiff title: Course of
Six Elementary Lectures on Chemistry, adapted to a
Juvenile Auditory. His later set of lectures
on the chemical history of a candle has become a
classic of both scientific and children's
Between 1851 and '61, Faraday gave all the
Christmas lectures. But, at the last, he was
seventy years old and falling victim to what was
probably Alzheimer's disease. He died six years
The year after his death, Faraday's friend John Tyndall wrote his biography.
Tyndall was 29 years younger and regarded Faraday
with near holy admiration. The deeply religious
Faraday had begun the series; now the agnostic
Tyndall became its primary heritor.
Tyndall gave the next Christmas Lectures after
Faraday, and he did so a total of eleven more times
thereafter. Like Faraday's, his lectures became
classics. He began his Lessons in
Electricity, the 1876 lectures, with these
Many centuries before Christ, it had been
observed that yellow amber [called
elektron], when rubbed, possesses the power of
attracting light bodies.
And, in one stroke, he paid homage to Faraday's
religious beliefs while he awakened students with a
lovely linguistic connection.
Thus, for nearly two centuries, the Royal Society
has sustained this very special gift to the young
-- the handling of mystery and the celebration of
wonder -- making flesh and blood of ideas that once
seemed to hover beyond the reach of understanding.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer. London:
Longmans, Green, and Co., 1868.
J. Tyndall, Lessons in Electricity at the Royal
Institution 1875-6, New York: D. Appleton and
L. Pearce Williams, Michael Faraday. New
York: Basic Books, Inc. 1965.
See also the many references to The Christmas
Lectures to be found the Internet.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.