Friday, June 13, 2008

James Ferguson...significant Scottish astronomer

James Ferguson
April 25th, 1710 to November 17th, 1776

Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton's Principles and Made Easy to Those Who Have Not Studied Mathematics

This is a detail from a large folding plate in James Ferguson's Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles. First published in 1756, Ferguson subsequently added material on the 1761 transit. This is from the edition of 1811, edited by David Brewster. The full engraving shows the geometry of the transit with the orbits of the Earth and Venus. This detail shows Venus at both ends of its path across the solar disc, at the two moments of internal contact with the limb of the sun.

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Biographical History

The astronomer James Ferguson was born at the Core of Mayen, near Rothiemay in Banffshire, on 25 April 1710. While still a small child he acquired an interest in mechanics, and already working at the age of ten - tending sheep - he was able to study the stars at night and make models of spinning-wheels and mills during the day. As a young man he first earned a living by cleaning clocks and repairing domestic machinery. In his spare time he constructed a wooden clock and watch with wooden wheels and whalebone springs. This mechanical talent would later assist in his construction of astronomical models. Showing artistic talent too, he made his way as a portrait painter in Edinburgh in 1734 and in Inverness in 1736. While in Inverness, Ferguson had returned to his earlier interest in the stars and prepared an astronomical table which was published in the 1740s, and in 1742 he constructed an orrery. In 1743 he was in London, again painting portraits but also continuing his astronomical research. Some papers were written, one of which - On the phenomena of Venus, represented in an orrery - was presented before the Royal Society in March 1746. In 1748, Ferguson began a career as a science teacher and lecturer, delivering courses on astronomy and a wide range of experimental science. In 1752-1753 he was lecturing on the reform of the calendar and the lunar eclipse of 1753. Although he had become very well known through his popularisation of science, he was far from well off, but by 1760 he was able to stop portrait-painting for a living. In 1763 he presented to the Royal Society a projection of the partial solar eclipse of 1 April 1764 showing its times and phases at Greenwich. In 1767, Ferguson visited Scotland, and soon after the visit he introduced a lecture on electricity into his courses. His publications include Astronomy explained on Sir Isaac Newton's principles (1756), Lectures on select subjects in mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics (1760), Introduction to electricity (1770), Select mechanical exercises (1773), and The art of drawing in perspective made easy to those who have no previous knowledge of the mathematics (1775). James Ferguson died in London on 16 November 1776.

Scottish Astronomers Group

1 comment:

DJF said...

An understated member of the science community whom contributed to many things besides Astronomy. His mechanical designs were incorporated by Benjamin Franklin, after acquaintance in London and becoming a friend. Its probable he was influential lobbing the Admiral in an expedition to Tahiti of the South Pacific to witness the transit of Venus (a solar eclipse). The expedition lead by Lt. James Cook on the HMS Endeavour and subsequently discovering Australia, New Zealand etc.