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Science Lectures for the People

Let's talk about science... an ongoing conversation between the University and the city.

The beginnings of the University’s long-standing involvement with its local community can be traced right back to its own origins in the nineteenth century. To celebrate Manchester as European City of Science 2016, one of the earliest and most popular expressions of these close ties has been revived for a worldwide audience in digital form by The University of Manchester Library.

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"I would… suggest that the charge for admission to the lectures should be raised from 1d. to 3d. or 4d. each. If the working man is not desirous of forfeiting the epithet of ‘intelligent’ which is so frequently bestowed upon him, he will gladly pay even the larger amount."

From Correspondence - Manchester Guardian, 4 October, 1872


Following on from a well-received programme of public lectures and entertainments which looked to alleviate the economic hardship and "depression of spirits" within the city caused by the Cotton Famine during the American Civil War, the eminent chemist, Henry Roscoe initiated the Science Lectures for the People in 1866.

These evening 'Penny lectures' were undertaken not only by Roscoe himself and his more eminent colleagues at what was then Owens College, but later lectures were delivered by a wide range of world famous scientists from all parts of Britain.

Local audiences numbering in their thousands were addressed on topics as varied as:

  • the indestructibility of matter (the very first lecture)
  • epidemic delusions
  • modern discoveries in sound
  • spectrum analysis
  • our coal fields
  • the unconscious action of the brain
  • John Dalton
  • the progress of sanitary science
  • and even the natural history of paving stones...

Science Lectures gun

Image: Thorpe, T. E. (Thomas Edward), Flame Lecture 1 (1877), Figure 6: Shot Firing


The lectures, which ran until 1879, were gathered together, attractively printed and went through a number of editions, selling well into the 1890s and successfully raised the profile of science and scientists in the industrial city.

As Roscoe himself also stated in 1906, "They have also served as models for popular but truly scientific lectures delivered in other cities and other countries." (H.E. Roscoe: The Life & Experiences of Henry Enfield Roscoe, Macmillan, 1906, p.128)

"The books (Series 1-6) before us are therefore well worth preserving, for though the lectures are popular they are in no instance claptrap; and whilst within the comprehension of all classes, they will also be found not unworthy of perusal by men of culture."

Nature - 2 December 1875, p.83

The variety of the material covered, and its considerable visual appeal, not only offers a fascinating insight into Victorian ideas of science, but it also rehearses educational issues still of concern today - particularly the relationship between applied training and the need to equip students with fundamental transferable scientific skills.

The debate between 'pure' and 'practical' science and who defines and decides such issues is very much alive today. Indeed it is worth noting that Roscoe, later hailed as "intellectually, the master-builder of the first Northern University", continued that discussion in parliament as a Liberal MP for South Manchester.

Now freely available to all: contemporary scientists; researchers in the history of science; educationalists; and its original intended audience, an inquisitive public, will find much of interest and to discuss in this unique collection.