Ferguson, James

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Ferguson, James

(b. near Rothiemay, Banffshire, Scotland, 25 April 1710; d. London, England, 16 November 1776)

astronomy, instrument making.

Son of tenant farmer John Ferguson and his wife, Elspet Lobban, James was the second of six children. His formal education consisted of three months at Keith Grammar School in 1717. While working at a variety of domestic jobs from 1720 until 1735, he mastered the elements of surveying, horology, astronomy, and portraiture. In 1739 he married Isabella Wilson, and they lived in Edinburgh until sailing for London in 1743.

Colin Maclaurin discovered Ferguson’s mechanical abilities and introduced him to Martin Folkes, who encouraged Ferguson to lecture to the Royal Society about his astronomical contrivances. A skilled designer of clocks and planispheres (as well as a “solar eclipsareon”), he became an accomplished public lecturer and expounder of Newtonian ideas, especially after the publication of his Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles (1756), which went through seventeen editions. He lectured extensively in London and the provinces (including Bath, Bristol, Derby, Leeds, Liverpool, and Newcastle) and was unofficial “popularizer in residence” to the court of George III. Elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1763, Ferguson spent his last years in London, pained by an unhappy marriage and the disgrace of the prostitution of his only daughter. He wrote a short, partial autobiography, which served as the preface to his Select Mechanical Exercises (1773).

Ferguson’s scientific work, while both careful and extensive, was neither original nor distinguished. His forte was popularization, and his confessedly weak mathematical background stood him in good stead in writing books for the lay public, particularly his classic Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Astronomy (1768). He published several technical papers in the Philosophical Transactions on eclipses, celestial globes, hygrometers, and horological instruments. His models of the planetary system were classics of engineering design whose accuracy far surpassed anything previously available. Several of his books were used in British grammar schools as late as the 1840’s.


I. Original Works. Ferguson’s major works include The Use of a New Orrery (London, 1746); A Brief Description of the Solar System (Norwich, 1753); An Idea of the Material Universe (London, 1754); Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles (London, 1756); Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, and Optics (London, 1760); Analysis of a Course of Lectures (London, 1761); Syllabus of a Course of Lectures (Edinburgh, 1768); The Young Gentleman’s and Lady’s Astronomy (London, 1768); An Introduction to Electricity (London, 1770); and Select Mechanical Exercises (London, 1773).

II. Secondary Literature. F. Henderson, Life of James Ferguson (Edinburgh, 1867) contains Ferguson’s short autobiographical notice as well as a very useful discussion of Ferguson’s many tracts and shorter works. Some useful information is also found in H. Mayhew, The Story of the Peasant-Boy Philosopher (London, 1857).

Laurens Laudan

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