The Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) has existed, since its inception in 1799, in the same building in Albemarle Street, Mayfair. Lined with art galleries, posh hotels and expensive cars, a very swanky thoroughfare, which perhaps belies one of the Institution’s core missions to bring science to the people and vice-versa. One of Albemarle Street’s other claims to fame is that it is London’s first one-way street, necessitated by the congestion caused by the carriages of patrons clamouring to attend lectures at the Institution itself.
The RI is sometimes confused in the mind of the public (including this writer) with the Royal Society, founded in 1660. They are entirely different. For Royal Society think Wren, Boyle, Newton, Evelyn – founding Royal patron: Charles II. For Royal Institution, think Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday and the live Christmas Lectures for children on the telly – founding Royal patron: William III.
The Royal Institution was founded by a group of gentlemen scientists who included Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, (an Anglophone American), the 9th Earl of Winchilsea, Henry Cavendish and Sir Thomas Bernard. They appointed Sir Humphrey Davy (1778 – 1829) as their first lecturer. He, in due course, appointed Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) – a bookbinder by profession – to be his assistant. The brilliant Faraday went on to eclipse his former boss, notably – but far from exclusively – in the field of electricity. Davy, Faraday and distinguished scientists who followed in their footsteps – James Dewar, Sir William and Sir Lawrence Bragg among others – conducted their work in laboratories at the RI, work which continues at the Institution to this day. In 1825, Faraday began the famous Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, beloved by children down the generations, many of whom became prominent scientists themselves.
In 1973, the RI opened its museum, which comprises part of the thousands of scientific artefacts in its wonderful collection. It includes many of the scientific instruments, tools, books, papers and correspondence of its legendary scientists, notably Faraday himself. His work was pioneering stuff, of course, so often the accoutrements required for his experiments simply didn’t exist. But he could turn his hand to almost anything and we see the glass containers and iron tools which he hand-made himself. Astonishing, a truly remarkable man.
The photos featured below are from my visit to the RI today. Unfortunately, they exclude the highlight of the day. As a special treat, I was taken by Charlotte New, Curator of Collections, into the actual archive. Among the treasure I saw were: a hand-written thank-you letter from Albert Einstein, dated 1923; one of Faraday’s small note-books: he had tiny, neat and simply beautiful handwriting (gorgeous chapter headings, underlines and curly brackets); medallions and awards of great scientists of the past; portraits; a bronze bubble-wrapped bust of Newton, awaiting the repair shop; original running-horse stills by Edweard Muybridge. I had to work hard not to dribble on the utterly wonderful historical objects!
So. What is the Royal Institution? It is a working laboratory and advanced scientific research centre, as we have noted. It is an historic building. It has a museum, a library and probably the nation’s most famous lecture theatre. It is an art gallery. It has a coffee shop and a bar. Most of all, it is one of London’s secret delights and I thoroughly recommend you pay it a visit soon. It is open Monday – Friday and is totally free of charge.
My sincere thanks to Pete Berthoud, Royal Institution volunteer, qualified Westminster Guide, blogger and London Historians member for inviting me today. And to Charlotte New, Curator of Collections.