Person NameFerguson; James (1710-1776); astronomer
ActivityJames Ferguson was born at the Core of Mayen, near Rothiemay, Banffshire, on 25 April 1710, the son of John Ferguson, a day-labourer, and Elspet Lobban. He taught himself to read and his father sent him to Keith grammar school for 3 months at the age of seven. In 1720 he began working, minding sheep, and passed his time during the day by making models of spinning-wheels, reels and mills, and at night in studying and mapping the stars. In 1724 he began working for James Glashan of Braehead who encouraged his studies. In 1728, when his contract ran out, he was taken into the household of Thomas Grant of Achoynaney, who had his butler, Alexander Cantley, give him lessons. When Cantley left, in 1730, Ferguson returned home where he built a terrestrial globe using a description from 'Geographical Grammar', which had been given to him by Cantley. Ferguson was then employed by a tippling miller and then a surgeon-farmer, until his health failed in 1732, and he spent his period of recuperation making a wooden watch and clock. He was next employed by Sir James Dunbar doing light work, such as cleaning and repairing clocks and machinery, in return for free quarters. He also designed and sold embroidery patterns. He came into contact with Dunbar's sister, Lady Dipple, who acted as his sponsor - giving him access to her son-in-law's library and, in 1734, taking him with her to Edinburgh where he began his 26 year career as a portrait painter. In 1736, after making a study of anatomy and physic, he attempted to become a medical practitioner in Banffshire but failed and moved to Inverness where he took up painting once again. In 1739 he married Isabella Wilson, daughter of George Wilson of Cantley. In 1742 he had an engraving made of an astronomical rotula and constructed his first orrery. In 1743, after the death of his parents, he and his wife travelled to London where he was sponsored by Sir Stephen Poyntz and, whilst working as a portrait painter, he continued his scientific investigations. In 1746 he published his first pamphlet, 'The Use of New Orrery', and in 1748 he began a career teaching science in London and the provinces. Ferguson constructed apparatus to illustrate his lectures, and in 1752-1753 he lectured on the reform of the calendar and the lunar eclipse. His 'Astronomy explained on Sir Isaac Newton's Principles' (1756) was a standard work for 65 years, although still not providing him with financial security. His 'Lectures of Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, and Optics' also ran to several reprints. Due in part to his failing eysight, he ceased his portrait painting in 1760, but he was granted a pension from George III and received gifts from benefactors. Ferguson continued with his lecture tours and writing and in 1763 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He was often invited by George III to discuss mechanics. His wife died from consumption in 1773, aged 53, and his own health began to deteriorate. He died on 16 November 1776, aged 66, leaving a substantial estate. His only daughter and eldest son also died of consumption and his other sons, who both trained in medicine at Aberdeen, had no children.
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