As its historic lecture hall reopens, the RI’s Professor of the History of Science discusses its origins, evolution and restoration.
Frank AJL James
Despite having worked in the Royal Institution for 25 years, I still get a frisson of excitement every time I go into its Lecture Theatre, let alone perform in it. To know that one is going into the same space where most of the giants of science over the past two centuries have lectured on the latest scientific knowledge gives me a sense of the extraordinary heritage that the Royal Institution possesses.
In this room, Humphry Davy first revealed sodium, Michael Faraday enunciated his field theory of electromagnetism, JJ Thomson announced the existence of the fundamental particle later called the electron, and so on.
Thanks to the scientific research of Davy, Faraday and their successors, such as James Dewar (of flask fame) and William and Lawrence Bragg (who showed how to use X-rays to determine the atomic structure of crystals), the Royal Institution has an international reputation second to none for the production of new scientific knowledge. Indeed 14 Nobel Prize winners have been closely associated with the Royal Institution since the Prize was established in 1901. The first Englishman to win the Physics Prize was the Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, John William Strutt, the third Lord Rayleigh.
Origins of the theatre
Equally important to the knowledge created in the Royal Institution, has been its various programmes to bring science to the public. Indeed this was the original mission of the Royal Institution as it was founded in 1799 (research only came later). This is explicit in the foundation document which stated that its function was
‘For diffusing the Knowledge, and facilitating the general Introduction of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvements; and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life’.
Right from the start, therefore, lectures were to be a key feature of the work of the Royal Institution and the Committee of Managers, who ran the institution, put much effort into getting this right. By June 1799 they had acquired 21 Albemarle Street, a gentleman’s townhouse which had been built in stages from the 1720s onwards.
The early years
For the initial programme of lectures they fitted out the large room on the first floor (now the Main Library) with tiered rows of seating on wooden scaffolding. It was here that the first lecture was delivered by the chemist Thomas Garnett just over a year after the Institution’s founding—a feat which I feel the modern world would be quite incapable of achieving.
This first floor room was conceived as a temporary solution while the Main Lecture Theatre was built. This was located at the northern end of the site and was built partially on some still vacant land. It was designed by Thomas Webster (1773–1844), an Orcadian, whose only other building that I have been able to identify is the Observatory at the University of Glasgow.
Contract drawing for the original lecture theatre, 1800, by Thomas Webster. Copyright, the Royal Institution.
Most of his career, in fact, was spent as a geologist – he was Secretary of the Geological Society and the first Professor of Geology at University College London. So quite how he came to design the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution remains something of a mystery. Its design may have been related to the lecture theatre of the Andersonian Institution in Glasgow with which Webster would have undoubtedly been familiar. Whatever its immediate models, the theatre is a descendent of the anatomy lecture theatres that were built in European hospitals from the Renaissance onwards and which can still be seen at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, in Leyden and in Padua.
Evolution of the theatre
The theatre as built ran (and still does) from the first floor of the Royal Institution to the third. It has a steeply raked semi-circular amphitheatre on the first floor and a gallery above accessed from the third floor. Originally there were very few doorways and all the seating were benches. This meant that during the nineteenth century, on several occasions, more than 1000 people were able to attend lectures; the first time this figure was passed was in 1846 when Faraday described the magnet-optical effect and diamagnetism, which he had recently discovered. Of course such large audiences meant that ventilation was always a problem in the lecture theatre and throughout the century official documents refer continuously to attempts to improve matters, but with little success.
Many adjustments were made to the theatre during the nineteenth century including, in the early 1870s, the installation of some embossed Japanese wallpaper in panelling round the side of the theatre. Following the opening up of Japan, things Japanese became all the rage and large numbers of public buildings in London were decorated with Japanese wallpaper. The Royal Institution lecture theatre now probably has the largest example of this form of decoration left in London.
Following an explosion of the electrical sub-station on 29 December 1927, just hours after a Christmas Lecture when there had been several hundred children in the building, the decision was taken completely reconstruct the theatre.
Photograph of the demolition of the lecture theatre, 1929, by WJ Green. Copyright, the Royal Institution.
At this point that it was found that, in addition to the aesthetic merit of the Japanese wallpaper, its acoustic properties were key in delivering the marvellous sound quality of the theatre. It was therefore decided to take the paper off and remount it in the new theatre which was constructed to more or less the same plan as the original theatre. The same decision was taken again during the latest building work and it was very noticeable how much harsher the acoustic became as the paper was removed for conservation. At the time of writing it is now being re-hung as the finishing touch in the creation of the newly refurbished theatre.
Looking to the future
The Royal Institution theatre now combines the best features from the original design by Webster and the work of the 1870s and 1920s with state of the art audio visual technology, proper ventilation and comfortable seating.
Photograph of the refurbished lecture theatre, 2007, by Jane Harrison, showing the Japanese wallpaper on the bench ready for remounting. Copyright, the Royal Institution.
During its more than 200 years over 25,000 lectures have been delivered in the space occupied by the Lecture Theatre; with its current reconstruction, looking to its heritage as well as to its future, this remarkable space is now fit for purpose for the twenty first century.
Frank James is Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution where he is also head of the Collections and Heritage Team. He is currently President of the British Society for the History of Science.
Related event: Tuesday 13 November 2007. Prof James profiles the most celebrated lecturer to use the theatre in The Faraday factor: why is he so famous?
Frank AJL James and Anthony Peers: Constructing Space for Science at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Physics in Perspective 2007, 9:130-185.
Frank AJL James (ed.): ‘The Common Purposes of Life’: Science and Society at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Aldershot, 2002.