Reference Work Entry

Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

pp 712-713

Date:

Ferguson, James

Born near Keith, (Grampian), Scotland, 25 April 1710

Died London, England, 16 November 1776
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Ferguson, James. Courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries

James Ferguson was an astronomical and philosophical lecturer, modelmaker, and clockmaker. Ferguson came from a large family that scratched a meager living off a few acres of rented land. Money was scarce and education a low priority. With a little help from a neighbor, James taught himself to read, and received instruction in writing from his father. Apart from 3 months at the grammar school in Keith, he had no formal education. The first half of his life was spent in Scotland, earning a living by drawing miniature portraits. He married Isabella Wilson on 31 May 1739, and had four children.

Although Ferguson is usually labeled an astronomer, his interests were many and included electricity, mechanics, horology, and chronology. He was never a practical astronomer; other than his extensive writings, his contributions to the subject were his lectures and the working models such as orreries and globes he constructed to explain celestial phenomena.

Ferguson’s interest in astronomy developed in his youth as he watched the night sky while employed as a shepherd. Coupled with his ability to design and make models to replicate the celestial motions, this experience led him in 1743 to seek his fortune in London as an astronomer. His lectures on the subject to “Gentlemen and Ladies,” enlivened by demonstrations, experiments, and working models, invariably made by himself, proved so popular that by the late 1740s he extended his circuit to include major English provincial towns and cities such as Bath, Liverpool, and Manchester. By then he was well known for his orreries, globes, and other devices, and was becoming an elder statesman in the world of science and technology. In 1761, George III awarded him the grant of a pension, and 2 years later the Royal Society elected him a fellow. By now his fame had spread to such an extent that in 1770 the self-taught shepherd-astronomer was elected to membership of the equally prestigious American Philosophical Society.

During his career in London, which continued for 33 years, Ferguson contributed numerous writings to the Philosophical Transactions, and periodicals like The Gentleman’s Magazine, and published several books, including two major texts: Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles (1756) and Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics (1760). All of these were very popular, due largely to the absence of mathematics and a clear, unpretentious style.

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