Christmas Lectures, then and now

xmas lecture 1

How the Christmas Lectures looked in 1988

I watched the first of this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures today. The theme was ‘How to hack your home’, explaining how it is possible to approach any engineering problem and break it down into simpler elements, culminating in turning a real London skyscraper into a giant game of Tetris (a wi-fi controlled LED lamp in each window – you get the picture). The lecture made great use of small microcontroller boards with ethernet connectivity and scripting languages to turn lamps on and off, trigger cameras and so on. It all seems quite reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Micro initiative where a generation of schoolkids was introduced to writing computer software. The perception is that this was a great success at the time but that in the intervening couple of decades it was forgotten and we subsequently taught kids to use Microsoft Office really well, but not to write software. I think there is a movement to get the kids interested in software again.

One thing I hate about this year’s Christmas Lectures is that they have decided that having a lecturer stand behind a desk or bench is just too elitist or formal for the kids to take these days, so the lecturer should be like a modern politician and speak without notes while wandering about. I don’t like it at all. If the idea is that knowledge and education is all about building on what has gone before, then it is completely natural that a significant part of any lecture is in the form of references to texts, or objects, or pieces of apparatus, all of which may be accessed quite conveniently when placed on a large flat surface.

I thought I would have a look at at some previous years’ lectures on Youtube, as a comparison. The first one I happened to stumble upon may be of interest to audiophiles. This 1988 lecture deals with the history of entertainment in the home, starting with musical boxes then pianolas, wax cylinders, 78s, LPs, crystal sets, valve radios, wire recorders, reel-to-reel, the compact cassette, mechanical television, and ending with the then future of high definition television, flat screens and 3D. Vinyl enthusiasts are allowed a wry chuckle at the claim that

…in 10 or 15 years we will probably have lost the LP for good

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