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Apr 25

Birthday of James Ferguson (Astronomer)

Ferguson the Astronomer
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Lecturing on the Orrery
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby 1766 Birthday of James Ferguson
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James Ferguson (25 April 1710 – 17 November 1776) was a Scottish astronomer, instrument and globe maker.


He is remembered as a self-taught inventor and improver of astronomical and other scientific apparatus.


Ferguson's globes were inspired by the early 18th Century globes of John Senex. Senex sold James Ferguson the copper plates for his globe gores, but not the copper plates used for Senex's pocket globe gores. Consequently, Ferguson designed his own pocket globe, producing several editions.


According to his autobiography, he learnt to read by hearing his father teach his elder brother, and with the help of an old woman was able to read quite well before his father thought of teaching him. After his father taught him to write, he was sent at the age of seven for three months to the grammar school at Keith and that was all the formal education he ever received.


His taste for mechanics was about this time accidentally awakened on seeing his father making use of a lever to raise a part of the roof of his house — an exhibition of strength which excited his wonder. 


In 1734 he went to Edinburgh, where he began to make portraits in miniature, by which means, while engaged in his scientific studies, he supported himself and his family for many years. Subsequently he settled at Inverness, where he drew up his Astronomical Rotula for showing the motions of the planets and positions of the sun and moon.  He wrote various papers for the Royal Society of London, of which he became a Fellow in November 1763,  devised astronomical and mechanical models, and in 1748 began to give public lectures on experimental philosophy. 


For more about James Ferguson, click his portrait below.


A key idea of the Age of Enlightenment—that empirical observation grounded in science and reason could best advance society—is expressed by the faces of the individuals in Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery painting above.  The orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system and in this painting, at its center, sits a lamp illuminating the faces of it’s audience.


Wright’s painting encapsulates  a philosophical shift in the eighteenth century away from traditional religious models of the universe and toward an empirical, scientific approach.


For more on the orrery in history, click the painting above.