Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferguson, James (1710-1776)
FERGUSON, JAMES (1710–1776), astronomer, was born at the Core of Mayen, near Rothiemay in Banffshire, on 25 April 1710. His father, John Ferguson, was a day-labourer who rented a few acres of land. By his wife, Elspet Lobban, he had six children, of whom James was the second-born. James taught himself to read from his brother's catechism, and his father sent him at the age of seven to the Keith grammar school for three months. His mechanical genius was awakened by seeing his father employ a prop and lever to raise the fallen roof of his cottage. When nine years old he not only divined the principle of the lever, but extended it to the wheel and axle. A turning-lathe and small knife supplied him with the means of constructing illustrative models; he made pen-and-ink sketches, and wrote a short account of his supposed discoveries. A gentleman in the neighbourhood having shown him a book in which they had been anticipated, Ferguson was pleased to find his principles correct, and was confirmed in his bent for mechanics.
In 1720 he was put to service, and kept sheep during four years, studying the stars by night, and in the daytime making models of spinning-wheels, reels, and mills. His next master, Mr. James Glashan of Brae-head, found that after finishing his work he was mapping the stars with the help of a stretched thread and beads strung upon it. Glashan kindly encouraged him, and often did his work that he might have time to pursue his studies. In 1728, on the expiration of his term with Glashan, Thomas Grant of Achoynaney took him into his house and had him taught by his butler, Alexander Cantley, ‘the most extraordinary man,’ Ferguson wrote long afterwards, ‘that I ever was acquainted with, or perhaps ever shall see.’ Ferguson could not be induced to remain at Achoynaney after Cantley's departure, but went home in 1730. A short interlude of recreation, spent in the construction of a terrestrial globe from the description in Gordon's ‘Geographical Grammar’ (Cantley's parting gift), was followed by a period of hard service, first with a tippling miller, then with a surgeon-farmer named Young, terminated in 1732 by a temporary failure of health. Here he made a wooden clock and a watch with wooden wheels and a whalebone spring.
His next move was to Durn House, where Sir James Dunbar allowed him free quarters while he cleaned clocks and repaired domestic machinery about the country. Two globular stones surmounting the gateway were painted by him to represent a terrestrial and celestial globe, and were so arranged as to act as sundials. Lady Dipple, Sir James Dunbar's sister, then set him to draw patterns for embroidery, which came into vogue in the neighbourhood, and brought him in money enough to assist his parents. Pieces of lace stitched from them were shown in Banffshire as late as 1790, and were said to be ‘very beautiful.’ His pursuit of star-gazing was not meanwhile abandoned. Induced by the promise of access to a large library, he paid a visit of eight months to Lady Dipple's son-in-law, Mr. William Baird of Auchmedden in Aberdeenshire, a miniature half-length portrait of whom, executed by Ferguson in Indian ink in the summer of 1733, is still in the possession of Mr. Fraser of Findrack. In April 1734 Lady Dipple took him with her to Edinburgh, designing to get him trained as an artist, and though he failed to procure instruction, he made his way as a portrait-painter. Among his sitters were Lady Jane Douglas, and her mother the Marchioness of Douglas, and they recommended him so effectually that he had soon as much to do as he could manage. ‘Thus,’ he remarks, ‘a business was put into my hands which I followed for twenty-six years.’
His attention was diverted towards anatomy and physic, and he left Edinburgh in September 1736, with the view of settling as a medical practitioner in his native place. Failing in this he resumed his painting at Inverness. In May 1739 he married Isabella, daughter of George Wilson of Cantley. In 1740 he was the guest, at Castle Downie, of Simon, lord Lovat, whose portrait by him is preserved at Abertarff, Inverness-shire.
Reverting to his earlier tastes, Ferguson contrived at Inverness the ‘astronomical rotula’ for showing the places of sun and moon on each day of the year, the times of eclipses, motions of the planets, &c. Colin Maclaurin [q. v.], then professor of mathematics in the university of Edinburgh, procured a subscription for its publication, and Ferguson went to Edinburgh early in 1742 for the purpose of having the plates engraved. Several impressions were sold, but the change of style in 1752 threw the invention out of date. His first orrery was constructed in 1742, in imitation of one in Maclaurin's possession, shown to him unopened. By special request he read a lecture upon it before Maclaurin's pupils. A smaller planetary machine with ivory wheels, made by him a year later, was sold in London to Sir Dudley Ryder, and is now possessed by his descendant, the Earl of Harrowby.
After the death of his parents he sailed with his wife for London on 21 May 1743. Through Baron Edlin's recommendation, he found there a cordial protector in Sir Stephen Poyntz, who at once employed him to paint portraits of his wife and children, and procured him plenty of customers. Scientific subjects, however, chiefly occupied his thoughts. Struck with the idea that the moon's orbit must always be concave to the sun, he ‘made a simple machine,’ he tells us, ‘for delineating both her path and the earth's on a long paper laid on the floor,’ and carried it to Martin Folkes, president of the Royal Society. Folkes took him to exhibit it at the Royal Society. One of the members, a watchmaker named Ellicott, convinced him that he had reached the same result twenty years previously. They became fast friends. At the president's request Ferguson published in 1745 a large engraving of the curve generated by his ‘trajectorium lunare.’
His first literary attempt was in a pamphlet on ‘The Use of a new Orrery,’ printed in 1746, to which succeeded in the following year ‘A Dissertation upon the Phenomena of the Harvest Moon.’ In a paper ‘On the Phenomena of Venus, represented in an Orrery, agreeable to the Observations of Signor Bianchini’ (Phil. Trans. xliv. 127), he described before the Royal Society on 20 March 1746 the course of the seasons on Venus resulting from a supposed rotation in 241/3 days, on an axis inclined 75° from the perpendicular; and on 14 May 1747, ‘An Improvement of the Celestial Globe’ (ib. p. 535). In April 1748 he entered upon his career as a popular scientific teacher and lecturer, choosing for his theme the solar eclipse of 14 July (O. S.) 1748. His later courses, delivered in the provinces as well as in London, covered a wide range of experimental science. The chief part of the illustrative apparatus was invented and constructed by himself, and several of his machines kept a permanent place in the lecture-room. Among his inventions (besides eight orreries) were a tide-dial, a ‘whirling-table’ for displaying the mode of action of central forces, the ‘mechanical paradox,’ and various kinds of astronomical clocks, stellar and lunar rotulas. His ‘seasons illustrator,’ invented in 1744, became indispensable to lecturers on astronomy. His ‘eclipsareon’ for showing the time, duration, and quantity of solar eclipses in all parts of the earth, was described before the Royal Society on 21 Feb. 1754 (ib. xlviii. 520; Gent. Mag. 1769, p. 143), a new hygrometer on 8 Nov. 1764 (Phil. Trans. liv. 259), his ‘universal dialling cylinder’ on 2 July 1767 (ib. lvii. 389). He lectured in 1752–3 on the reform of the calendar and the lunar eclipse of 17 April 1753, and was collecting meanwhile materials for his best work.
Ferguson's ‘Astronomy explained on Sir Isaac Newton's Principles’ was published in July 1756, and met with immediate and complete success. The first issue was exhausted in a year; the thirteenth edition, revised by Brewster, appeared in 1811, and the demand for successive reprints did not cease until ten years later. It was translated into Swedish and German, and long excluded other treatises on the same subject. Although containing no theoretical novelty, the manner and method of its expositions were entirely original. Astronomical phenomena were for the first time described in familiar language. The book formed Herschel's introduction to celestial science.
Ferguson was now famous, but he was still poor. In the first edition of his ‘Astronomy’ he advertised himself as teaching the use of the globes for two guineas, and ‘drawing pictures in Indian ink on vellum at a guinea apiece, frame and glass included,’ but failing eyesight began to hinder artistic employment. On 17 Jan. 1758 he imparted to the Rev. Alexander Irvine of Elgin his thoughts of soon leaving London on account of the expense of living there. Some relief was afforded by the sale, for 300l., of the remaining copyright of his book, and an interview with the Prince of Wales (afterwards George III) at Leicester House, on 1 May 1758, finally decided him to maintain his position.
‘Franklin's clock’ was in 1758 turned into ‘Ferguson's clock’ (remembered as a horological curiosity), by an improvement to which the original inventor's assent had been obtained during his visit to London in 1757; and in 1760 Ferguson's ‘Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, and Optics,’ were published with a dedication to Prince Edward. A seventh edition of this popular book appeared in 1793; Brewster's revision in 1805 gave it fresh vitality; translations into several languages and repeated impressions in America further attested its value. The author received about 350l. for the copyright.
In February 1761 he published a pamphlet entitled ‘A Plain Method of Determining the Parallax of Venus by her Transit over the Sun,’ including a revised translation of Halley's memoir of 1716, and accompanied by a map of ingresses and egresses modelled on that of Delisle. It was appended to later editions of his ‘Astronomy.’ He himself observed the transit with a six-foot reflector from the top of the British Museum (Addit. MS. No. 4440, f. 604). He altogether left off portrait-painting in 1760, but a pension of 50l. a year was granted to him by George III in 1761, and he received gifts from persons of distinction. That his lectures were fairly profitable appears from the statement that he cleared 100l. during a tour of six weeks to Bath and Bristol in the spring of 1763. Unsuccessful as a candidate for a clerkship to the Royal Society in January 1763, he was, however, on 24 Nov. following, elected a fellow, and ‘on account of his singular merits and of his circumstances’ excused the customary payments.
On 17 Nov. 1763 he presented to the Royal Society a projection of the partial solar eclipse of 1 April 1764, showing its time and phases at Greenwich (Phil. Trans. liii. 240). He observed the event at Liverpool (ib. liv. 108). In 1767 he revisited Scotland, and at Edinburgh associated intimately with William Buchan [q. v.], author of ‘Domestic Medicine,’ and Dr. Lind, the electrician. He soon afterwards introduced a lecture on electricity into his course. One of his most popular works, ‘The Young Gentleman's and Lady's Astronomy, familiarly explained in Ten Dialogues between Neander and Eudosia,’ was published in 1768. It is written with such clearness that, as Madame de Genlis remarked, ‘a child of ten years old may understand it perfectly from one end to the other.’ The interlocutors represent Ferguson himself and his gifted pupil Anne Emblin, afterwards the wife of Mr. Capel Lofft, who hence entitled his poem on the universe (1781) ‘Eudosia.’
From 1768 George III often invited Ferguson to interviews with him to discuss mechanics. Early in 1769 he reprinted a paper communicated six years earlier to the Royal Society under the title ‘A Delineation of the Transit of Venus expected in the Year 1769’ (ib. liii. 30). His lectures at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1770 were patronised by Dr. Hutton, who was surprised to learn from him that he was not only ignorant of geometry, but incapable of apprehending a geometrical demonstration (Hutton, Tracts, iii. 379). Conviction of the truth of a proposition was attainable by him only through measurement of the construction for proving it. On the conclusion of his course at Derby in the autumn of 1772, he visited the Peak district, and read before the Royal Society on 16 Nov. an account of the Devil's Cave, subsequently published as a tract. His scattered papers were collected in 1773 into a volume entitled ‘Select Mechanical Exercises’ (4th ed. 1823), the partial autobiography prefixed to which is the chief source of information regarding his early life. He was interrupted in its composition by the death of his wife, of consumption, on 3 Sept. 1773, at the age of 52. His domestic affairs were thenceforward cared for by his sister Janet, who had come to London to attend on Mrs. Ferguson. His own health, never robust, soon after began to decline; yet he lectured in London, Bath, and Bristol in 1774, and wrote, in 1775, ‘The Art of Drawing in Perspective made easy to those who have no previous knowledge of the Mathematics,’ of which five editions appeared previous to Brewster's in 1823. He died at 4 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, on 16 Nov. 1776, aged 66, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Marylebone. His intellect remained unclouded, and his lips moved in prayer to the last.
In spite of his apparent poverty he died worth about 6,000l. The plea of a recent legacy from a distant relative (Gent. Mag. 1777, p. 108) has little to support it. Dr. Houlston of Liverpool, who knew him intimately, testifies to his amiability, simplicity, and absence of pedantry (Ann. Register, xix. 53). He adds that he was ‘unhappy in his family connections.’ ‘Somewhere about the year 1770,’ it is elsewhere related, ‘while Ferguson was delivering a lecture on astronomy to a London audience, his wife entered and maliciously overturned several pieces of his apparatus. Ferguson, observing the catastrophe, only remarked the event by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have the misfortune to be married to this woman”’ (The Mirror, 25 Nov. 1837).
His only daughter, Agnes, described as elegant, vivacious, and learned, suddenly deserted her father in 1763, when in her eighteenth year, and was never again heard of by him. The doctor who attended her in her last illness left the miserable story of her life scribbled on the fly-leaf of a tract in the British Museum. After a disreputable career she died of consumption in a garret near Charing Cross, 27 Jan. 1792.
Ferguson's eldest son, James, a young man of some promise, died, likewise of consumption, on 20 Nov. 1772, at the age of twenty-four. Two younger sons were trained as surgeons at Aberdeen, but one never practised, and the other failed in his profession; neither left issue.
Four original portraits of Ferguson are extant; the best, a mezzotint by Townsend, an engraving from which by Stewart was published in December 1776, and was prefixed in 1778 to the second edition of his ‘Select Mechanical Exercises.’ It corresponds well with Andrew Reid's description of his aspect about 1774. ‘Mr. Ferguson had a very sedate appearance, face and brow a little wrinkled; he wore a large full stuff wig, which gave him a venerable look, and made him to appear older than he really was’ (Henderson, Life of Ferguson, p. 463).
Ferguson's great merit as a scientific teacher lay in clearness, both of thought and style, and in the extreme ingenuity with which by means of machines and diagrams he brought the eye to help the mind of the learner. Hutton recognised his ‘very uncommon genius, especially in mechanical contrivances and executions.’ Brewster considered him as ‘in some degree the first elementary writer on natural philosophy’ (Preface to Ferguson's Essays, 1823). Besides the works already mentioned he wrote: 1. ‘An Idea of the Material Universe deduced from a Survey of the Solar System,’ London, 1754. 2. ‘Astronomical Tables and Precepts for Calculating the true Times of New and Full Moons,’ &c., 1763. 3. ‘Analysis of a Course of Lectures on Mechanics, Pneumatics, Hydrostatics, Spherics, and Astronomy,’ 1763, 8th ed. 1774. 4. ‘Supplement to Lectures on Select Subjects,’ 1767. 5. ‘Tables and Tracts relative to several Arts and Sciences,’ 1767. 6. ‘Introduction to Electricity,’ 1770. 7. ‘An Account of a Remarkable Fish, taken in the King Road, near Bristol’ (Phil. Trans. liii. 170). 8. ‘The Description of a New and Safe Crane’ (ib. liv. 24). 9. ‘Short and Easy Methods for Finding the Quantity of Time contained in any given number of Mean Lunations,’ &c. (ib. lv. 61). He wrote the astronomical part of Guthrie's ‘Geographical Grammar’ in 1771 (3rd edition), and reprinted in 1775, with the addition of a third, two ‘Letters to the Rev. John Kennedy,’ originally published as a critique of Kennedy's ‘Astronomical Chronology’ in the ‘Critical Review’ for May and June 1763. The greater part of Ferguson's miscellaneous writings were collected and republished by Brewster in 1823, with the title ‘Ferguson's Essays.’ His ‘Commonplace Book,’ discovered at Edinburgh in 1865, includes, with a copious record of mechanical contrivances and calculations, his drawings of remarkable sun-spots in 1768 and 1769.[Life of James Ferguson, F.R.S., by Ebenezer Henderson, LL.D., 1867; 2nd ed. 1870. Ferguson's ‘Short Account’ of his earlier years (1710–43), here reprinted with notes and illustrations, is supplemented with an ‘Extended Memoir,’ giving all available details of his circumstances and inventions down to the time of his death. See also Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, ii. 422; Hutton's Mathematical Dict. 1815; R. Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Brewster's Edinb. Encycl. ix. 297 (biography), xvi. 626, 629 (planetary machines); Gent. Mag. xlvi. 531, xlvii. passim; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Delambre's Hist. de l'Astr., p. 639. Mayhew's Story of the Peasant Boy Philosopher (1854) is founded on the early life of Ferguson.]