Photo by Julian Jones
The Royal Institution was created by Benjamin Thompson, or Count Rumford as he was known. I hesitate to call Thompson a scientist, because he did so many things in his unconventional life. Thompson was born in March 1753, son of a farmer, in Woburn, Massachusetts. His father died when Benjamin was young, so after a rudimentary education, he worked as a shop assistant to help support his family. Young Benjamin then used a combination of self-education and charm to find work as a physician's apprentice and a school teacher, before marrying a rich widow which set him up nicely. He took to organising scientific expeditions, but soon found himself in trouble when he threw in his lot with the British authorities during the American War of Independence. After working as a British spy, Thompson eventually charmed his way into a passage to England, arriving in 1776. Work followed in government, and also on scientific projects. Continually restless, Thompson decided to try his luck in Europe, and somehow made himself an important figure in the government of Bavaria. By 1792 Benjamin Thompson had become Count Rumford.
1792 saw Rumford resuming his scientific interests, studying the nature of heat. Spending some time in London he came up with an idea for a combined museum, research and educational establishment. This vision became reality as the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street. Using his usual charm Rumford managed to use other people's money to have the Royal Institution open by 1800. In 1801 Humphrey Davy was appointed director and made a huge success of promoting public understanding of science. Davy took on an enthusiastic book binder's apprentice named Michael Faraday, who became one of the world's great scientists. Faraday lived and worked at the Royal Institution, and it was here that he did all his work on electricity and magnets. Faraday realised that a wire carrying an electric current can be forced to move in a circle around a fixed magnet. This work, demonstrated at the Institution of 1821, with a single wire circling a magnet, led to the electric motor. Within sixty years electric trains were running in Britain, Germany and the USA. Reversing the process Faraday also discovered that a spinning magnet could induce an electric current in a surrounding wire. This discovery, published in a paper read at the Royal Institution on 24th November 1831 led to the electrical generator.
The Friday evening Discourses, and Christmas Lectures for young people were both founded by Faraday. So popular were these lectures in the early nineteenth century that Albermarle Street became blocked by carriages, and as a result became London's first one way street. This illustrates the fact that science can have a much wider appeal than is usually assumed to be the case. Faraday was changing the world and people got in their carriages and went off to Albermarle Street to be a part of it.
The Royal Institution continues today as a research, educational and museum foundation, just as Benjamin Thompson intended. Following a huge restoration project in 2008 the Royal Institution is now open to visitors. There is a regular programme of events and lectures. The museum displays original apparatus and papers of many scientists including Michael Faraday, and Humphrey Davy. Refreshments are offered at a cafe, bar and restaurant.
Please ring ahead to book group visits.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Address: The Royal Institution of Great Britain, 21 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BS
Directions: The Royal Institution is in Albermarle Street, central London. The closest Underground station is Green Park, which is a five minute walk from the Royal Institution. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Royal Institution.
Access: There is good access for wheelchair users with a lift to upper floors. There are toilet adapted facilities.
telephone: 020 7409 2992