1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ferguson, James
FERGUSON, JAMES (1710–1776), Scottish mechanician and astronomer, was born near Rothiemay in Banffshire on the 25th of April 1710, of parents in very humble circumstances. He first learned to read by overhearing his father teach his elder brother, and with the help of an old woman was “able,” he says in his autobiography, “to read tolerably well before his father thought of teaching him.” After receiving further instruction in reading from his father, who also taught him to write, he was sent at the age of seven for three months to the grammar school at Keith. 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 seeming strength which at first “excited his terror as well as wonder.” In 1720 he was sent to a neighbouring farm to keep sheep, where in the daytime he amused himself by making models of mills and other machines, and at night in studying the stars. Afterwards, as a servant with a miller, and then with a doctor, he met with hardships which rendered his constitution feeble through life. Being compelled by his weak health to return home, he there amused himself with making a clock having wooden wheels and a whalebone spring. When slightly recovered he showed this and some other inventions to a neighbouring gentleman, who engaged him to clean his clocks, and also desired him to make his house his home. He there began to draw patterns for needlework, and his success in this art led him to think of becoming a painter. In 1734 he went to Edinburgh, where he began to take 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, places of the sun and moon, &c., and in 1743 went to London, which was his home for the rest of his life. He wrote various papers for the Royal Society, of which he became a fellow in 1763, devised astronomical and mechanical models, and in 1748 began to give public lectures on experimental philosophy. These he repeated in most of the principal towns in England. His 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. It is, however, as the inventor and improver of astronomical and other scientific apparatus, and as a striking instance of self-education, that he claims a place among the most remarkable men of science of his country. During the latter years of his life he was in receipt of a pension of £50 from the privy purse. He died in London on the 17th of November 1776.
Ferguson’s principal publications are Astronomical Tables (1763); Lectures on Select Subjects (1st ed., 1761, edited by Sir David Brewster in 1805); Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles (1756, edited by Sir David Brewster in 1811); and Select Mechanical Exercises, with a Short Account of the Life of the Author, written by himself (1773). This autobiography is included in a Life by E. Henderson, LL.D. (1st ed., 1867; 2nd, 1870), which also contains a full description of Ferguson’s principal inventions, accompanied with illustrations. See also The Story of the Peasant-Boy Philosopher, by Henry Mayhew (1857).