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Birthday of James Ferguson (Astronomer)

"Everything was done by experiments – he had not even chalk and sponge." ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (German experimental physicist, 1742-1799), referring to Ferguson

Sometimes referred to as the "wheelwright of the heavens", self-educated astronomer and itinerant lecturer, James Ferguson was born today in 1710 in Rothiemay. Showing remarkable intelligence and keen interest in all things mechanical, his only formal education was at the age of seven for three months to the grammar school at Keith. 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 places of the sun and moon. He wrote various papers for the Royal Society of London, of which he became a Fellow in November 1763. Throughout his life, he devised astronomical and mechanical models. Ferguson's deep interest in his subject, his clear explanations, his ingeniously constructed diagrams, and his mechanical apparatus rendered him one of the most successful of popular lecturers on scientific subjects.

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.

From Scientist of the Day, on the Linda Hall Library website:

Ferguson was a remarkable talent, who worked as a shepherd and had no formal schooling, and yet who taught himself astronomy, mechanics, and the art of limning, or portrait drawing.  He came to London in 1743, making mechanical devices and publishing the odd paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, while earning his means by drawing portraits.  His breakthrough came with the publication of Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles (1756), which was so popular it required a second edition a year later.  Our Library has this second edition, and it is the source for four of the illustrations above.  The frontispiece (first image) depicts an orrery that Ferguson designed and built, reportedly after he had seen another orrery, and without even looking at that orrery’s mechanism.  He also invented a lunar eclipse machine of which he was very proud (second image). 


For more about James Ferguson, click the famous painting of Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.


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 this work.


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