Greetings from iainthepict. This blog of mine is meant to be like a 'Book of Days' or a kind of 'Scottish Year Book' if you will. The idea was to present an event for each day of the year. Somewhere in here, you can find out what happened, affecting Scotland and the Scots, on any given day of the year. Your comments and observations are very welcome.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.

Monday, 25 April 2011

James Ferguson

James Ferguson, astronomer, instrument maker, lecturer, and natural and experimental philosopher, was born on the 25th of April, 1710.

James Ferguson was a phenomenon. His interest in astronomy and mechanics began as a child and flourished in spite of the humble circumstances of his upbringing. The most fascinating thing about him is that he was almost completely self-educated, from learning to read as a child, to practically every discipline he entered into. Ultimately, he made his name as a successful lecturer and author of popular scientific books, where his success was largely down to his simple explanations and ingenious diagrams. He claims a place amongst the most remarkable men of science as the inventor and improver of astronomical and other scientific apparatus.

James Ferguson was born at Core of Mayen, near Rothiemay, on the 25th of April, 1710. James was the son of a puir cottar, however, he went on to become one of Scotland’s greatest men of science. In fact, Ferguson’s father was too poor to provide him with any formal education, but that didn’t deter the resourceful creatur. His aptitude for learning became apparent at the age of seven, when he started learning to read by listening to his father teach his elder brother. Together with the three months he afterwards had at the grammar school in Keith, this was all the formal education he ever received. As he wrote in an account of his life in a prefix to his book entitled ‘Select Mechanical Exercises’, “Ashamed to ask my father to instruct me, I used to take the Scottish catechism and study the lesson, which he had been teaching my brother. Some time after, he was agreeably surprised to find me reading by myself. He thereupon gave me further instruction and also taught me to write.”

Ferguson’s achievements are made all the more remarkable by the comments of Charles Hutton, who wrote of Ferguson, “[he] must be allowed to have been a very uncommon genius, especially in mechanical contrivances and inventions, for he constructed many machines himself in a very neat manner. His general mathematical knowledge, however, was little or nothing. Of algebra he understood but little more than the notation; his constant method being to satisfy himself as to the truth of any problem, with a measurement by scale and compasses.”

At the age of ten, in order to earn his keep, wee Jamesie went to tend sheep for a neighbouring farmer. In the evenings, he devoted himself to star gazing. Lying out in a field, he used a string threaded with small beads to measure the distances between the stars. He then transposed this onto paper, marking the positions of the stars and planets. By this simple and ingenious method, the aspiring astronomer was able to observe how the planets moved amongst the stars, and delineate their paths on his celestial map.

Some years later, in 1739, whilst living in Inverness, Ferguson again began to think of astronomy. He contrived a perpetual scheme for showing the motions and places of the sun and moon in the ecliptic on each day of the year, and consequently the days of all the new and full moons. He then added the eclipses to his scheme and called it an ‘Astronomical Rotula’. This was then published with the help of a Professor of Mathematics in Edinburgh, called Maclaurin, who recognised Ferguson’s ability and helped him defray the cost of getting it engraved on copper plates, and promoted its subscription.

In between these events, in his self taught manner, Ferguson ‘rediscovered’ the principles of mechanics. He did this by making replicas of the machines he saw, such as a weight driven wooden clock, where the chime was made from the neck of a broken bottle, and a watch, made from wooden wheels and whalebone spring. His extraordinary ingenuity became known to a local Laird, Sir James Dunbar of Durn, and it was while employed by Sir James that Ferguson famously painted the two stone orbs above the gate pillars – one as a terrestrial globe and the other as a celestial map. Sir James’ sister, Lady Dipple, then brought him to Edinburgh, where she effectively sponsored him while he embarked upon a successful career, drawing miniature portraits of the gentry.

In 1743, Ferguson was able to go to London, where he published astronomical tables and gave lectures in experimental philosophy. The then Prince of Wales was so impressed that he gave him a pension of £50 a year. Then, in 1763, Ferguson was elected a member of the Royal Society. The Society waived the initial and annual fees in Ferguson’s case, on the basis he was too poor to pay, however, to the astonishment of his friends, when he died, on the 17th of November, 1776, he was found to have been worth about six thousand pounds.

By 1748, he had entirely given up drawing pictures, and was employed in the “much pleasanter business,” as he put it “of reading lectures on mechanics, hydrostatics, hydraulics, pneumatics, electricity, and astronomy.” Amongst all his contrivances, his favourites were the ‘eclipsareon’, which shows the time, quantity, duration, and progress of solar eclipses, at all parts of the earth, and the ‘universal dialling cylinder’, of which there is a figure in the supplement to his book ‘Mechanical Lectures’.

Ferguson’s influence extended widely in his own time and he was one of the first to popularise astronomy as a science. He was the first to form a nebular theory and William Herschel studied astronomy from his books.  Ferguson created a number of orreries and machines to illustrate his lectures. He also published several books, including his internationally best selling work, ‘Astronomy Explained on Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles’. Not only did Thomas Paine mention Ferguson in ‘The Age of Reason’ but he was elegantly featured in ‘Eudosia, a poem on the universe’ by Capel Lloft, which includes this relevant part stanza:

“Astronomy, enamoured, gently led
Through all the splendid labyrinths of heaven,
And taught thee her stupendous laws; and clothed
In all the light of fair simplicity,
Thy apt expression.”

A memorial to Ferguson, in Rubislaw granite, now stands in the King George IV playing fields on the axis of the road to Marnoch.

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