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James Ferguson


1710 - 1776

Engineer, astronomer, lecturer and artist. Born at Core of Mayen (Rothiemay, Aberdeenshire) the son of a labourer, he learned to read and write at home before briefly attending Keith Grammar School. A self-taught scientist, his interest in mechanics grew from watching his father work and, in 1720 while working as a shepherd, he was able to build models by day and study the stars at night. He then began to make and maintain clocks. From there, he gained an interest in art and left for Edinburgh in 1734 where he made a living by painting miniatures but was also able to study medicine and science at the University there under the tutelage of Colin Maclaurin (1698 - 1746). His plans to practice medicine were dashed when he realised that what he had studied from books had little application in practice. Ferguson stayed briefly in Inverness where he revived his interest in astronomy. He moved to London in 1743, establishing himself as a lecturer and author. He built a series of remarkable astronomical models, including orreries and planetaria, and used these to illustrate his lectures. This together with his enthusiasm and clear explanations of his subject ensured Ferguson great popularity, speaking around the country and gaining a reputation as one of the foremost lecturers of his time.

His publications include Astronomical Tables (1763), Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton's Principles (1756, edited by Sir David Brewster in 1811), together with a paper on the phenomena of the Harvest Moon. He invented a tide dial, astronomical clocks and a device to explain a solar eclipse, known as an eclipsareon. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1763.

In his latter years Ferguson was supported by a government pension of £50. He died in London. His portrait hangs in National Portrait Gallery, some of his papers are held by the National Library of Scotland and his orreries can be seen in the Banff Museum and the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.


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