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Significant Scots
James Ferguson

FERGUSON, JAMES, an ingenious experimental philosopher, mechanist, and astronomer. Of this miracle of self-instruction and native genius, we cannot do better than give his own account, as drawn up by himself a very few years before his death, and prefixed to his "Select Mechanical Exercises." It is one of the most interesting specimens of autobiography in the language.

"I was born in the year 1710, a few miles from Keith, a little village in Banffshire, in the north of Scotland; and can with pleasure say, that my parents, though poor, were religious and honest; lived in good repute with all who knew them; and died with good characters.

As my father had nothing to support a large family but his daily labour, and the profits arising from a few acres of land he rented, it was not to be expected that he could bestow much on the education of his children: yet they were not neglected; for, at his leisure hours, he taught them to read and write. And it was while he was teaching my elder brother to read the Scottish catechism that I acquired my reading. Ashamed to ask my father to instruct me, I used, when he and my brother were abroad, to take the catechism, and study the lesson which he had been teaching my brother; and when any difficulty occurred, I went to a neighbouring old woman, who gave me such help as enabled me to read tolerably well before my father had thought of teaching me.

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; which, with about three months I afterwards had at the grammar-school at Keith, was all the education I ever received.

My taste for mechanics arose from an odd accident.—When about seven or eight years of age, a part of the roof of the house being decayed, my father, desirous of mending it, applied a prop and lever to an upright spar to raise it to its former situation; and, to my great astonishment, I saw him, without considering the reason, lift up the ponderous roof as if it had been a small weight. I attributed this at first to a degree of strength that excited my terror as well as wonder: but thinking further of the matter, I recollected, that he had applied his strength to that end of the lever which was furthest from the prop; and finding, on inquiry, that this was the means whereby the seeming wonder was effected, I began making levers (which I then called bars); and by applying weights to them different ways, I found the power gained by my bar was just in proportion to the lengths of the different parts of the bar on either side of the prop.—I then thought it was a great pity, that, by means of this bar, a weight could be raised but a very little way. On this I soon imagined, that, by pulling round a wheel, the weight might be raised to any height by tying a rope to the weight, and winding the rope round the axle of the wheel; and that the power gained must be just as great as the wheel was broader than the axle was thick; and found it to be exactly so, by hanging one weight to a rope put round the wheel, and another to the rope that coiled round the axle. So that, in these two machines, it appeared very plain, that their advantage was as great as the space gone through by the working power exceeded the space gone through by the weight. And this property I also thought must take place in a wedge for cleaving wood; but then I happened not to think of the screw.

—By means of a turning lathe which my father had, and sometimes used, and a little knife, I was enabled to make wheels and other things necessary for my purpose.

I then wrote a short account of these machines, and sketched out figures of them with a pen, imagining it to be the first treatise of the kind that ever was written: but found my mistake, when I afterwards showed it to a gentleman, who told me that these things were known long before, and showed me a printed book in which they were treated of: and I was much pleased when I found, that my account (so far as I had carried it) agreed with the principles of mechanics in the book he showed me. And from that time my mind preserved a constant tendency to improve in that science.

But as my father could not afford to maintain me while I was in pursuit only of these matters, and I was rather too young and weak for hard labour, he put me out to a neighbour to keep sheep, which I continued to do for some years; and in that time I began to study the stars in the night. In the day-time I amused myself by making models of mills, spinning-wheels, and such other things as I happened to see.

I then went to serve a considerable farmer in the neighbourhood, whose name was James Glashan. I found him very kind and indulgent: but he soon observed, that in the evenings, when my work was over, I went into a field with a blanket about me, lay down on my back, and stretched a thread with small beads upon it, at arms-length, between my eye and the stars, sliding the beads upon it till they hid such and such stars from my eye, in order to take their apparent distances from one another, and then, laying the thread down on a paper, I marked the stars thereon by the beads, according to their respective positions, having a candle by me. My master at first laughed at me, but when I explained my meaning to him, he encouraged me to go on; and that I might make fair copies in the day-time of what I had done in the night, he often worked for me himself. I shall always have a respect for the memory of that man.

One day he happened to send me with a message to Rev. Mr John Gilchrist minister at Keith, to whom I had been known from my childhood. I carried my star-papers to show them to him, and found him looking over a large parcel of maps, which I surveyed with great pleasure, as they were the first I had ever seen. He then told me, that the earth is round like a ball, and explained the map of it to me. I requested him to lend me that map, to take a copy of it in the evenings. He cheerfully consented to this, giving me at the same time a pair of compasses, a ruler, pens, ink, and paper; and dismissed me with an injunction not to neglect my master’s business by copying the map, which I might keep as long as I pleased.

For this pleasant employment, my master gave me more time than I could reasonably expect; and often took the threshing-flail out of my hands, and worked himself, while I sat by him in the barn, busy with my compasses, ruler and pen.

When I had finished the copy, I asked leave to carry home the map; he told me I was at liberty to do so, and might stay two hours to converse with the minister.—In my way thither, I happened to pass by the school at which I had been before, and saw a genteel-looking man, whose name I afterwards learnt was Cantley, painting a sun-dial on the wall. I stopt a while to observe him, and the schoolmaster came out, and asked me what parcel it was that I had under my arm. I showed him the map, and the copy I had made of it, where with he appeared to be very well pleased; and asked me whether I should not like to learn of Mr Cantley to make sun-dials? Mr Cantley looked at the copy of the map, and commended it much; telling the schoolmaster, Mr John Skinner, that it was a pity I did not meet with notice and encouragement. I had a good deal of conversation with him, and found him to be quite affable and communicative; which made me think I should be extremely happy if I could be further acquainted with him.

I then proceeded with the map to the minister, and showed him the copy of it. While we were conversing together, a neighbouring gentleman, Thomas Grant, esq. of Achoynaney, happened to come in, and the minister immediately introduced me to him, showing him what I had done. He expressed great satisfaction; asked me some questions about the construction of maps, and told me, that if I would go and live at his house, he would order his butler, Alexander Cantley, to give me a great deal of instruction. Finding that this Cantley was the man whom I had seen painting the sun-dial, and of whom I had already conceived a very high opinion, I told squire Grant, that I should rejoice to be at his house as soon as the time was expired for which I was engaged with my present master. He very politely offered to put one in my place, but this I declined.

When the term of my servitude was out, I left my good master, and went to the gentleman’s house, where I quickly found myself with a most humane good family. Mr Cantley the butler soon became my friend, and continued so till his death. He was the most extraordinary man that I ever was acquainted with, or perhaps ever shall see; for he was a complete master of arithmetic, a good mathematician, a master of music on every known instrument except the harp, understood Latin, French, and Greek, let blood extremely well, and could even prescribe as a physician upon any urgent occasion. He was what is generally called self-taught; but I think he might with much greater propriety have been termed, God Almighty’s scholar.

He immediately began to teach me decimal arithmetic, and algebra; for I had already learnt vulgar arithmetic, at my leisure hours from books. He then proceeded to teach me the elements of geometry; but, to my inexpressible grief, just as I was beginning that branch of science, he left Mr Grant, and went to the late earl Fife’s, at several miles distance. The good family I was then with could not prevail with me to stay after he was gone; so I left them, and went to my father’s.

He had made me a present of Gordon’s Geographical Grammar, which, at that time, was to me a great treasure. There is no figure of a globe in it although it contains a tolerable description of the globes, and their use. From this description I made a globe in three weeks at my father’s, having turned the ball thereof out of a piece of wood ; which ball I covered with paper, and delineated a map of the world upon it, made the meridian ring and horizon of wood, covered them with paper, and graduated them and was happy to find, that by my globe, which was the first I ever saw, I could solve the problems.

But this was not likely to afford me bread; and I could not think of staying with my father, who, I knew full well could not maintain me in that way, as it could be of no service to him; and he had, without my assistance, hands sufficient for all his work.

I then went to a miller, thinking it would be a very easy business to attend the mill, and that I should have a great deal of leisure time to study decimal arithmetic and geometry. But my master, being too fond of tippling at an ale-house, left the whole care of the mill to me, and almost starved me for want of victuals; so that I was glad when I could have a little oatmeal mixed with cold water to eat. I was engaged for a year in that man’s service; at the end of which I left him, and returned in a very weak state to my father’s.

Soon after I had recovered my former strength, a neighbouring farmer, who practised as a physician in that part of the country, came to my father’s, wanting to have me as a labouring servant. My father advised me to go to Dr Young, telling me that the doctor would instruct me in that part of his business. This he promised to do, which was a temptation to me. But instead of performing his promise, he kept me constantly at very hard labour, and never once showed me one of his books. All his servants complained that he was the hardest master they had ever lived with; and it was my misfortune to be engaged with him for half a year. But at the end of three months I was so much overwrought, that I was almost disabled, which obliged me to leave him; and he was so unjust as to give me nothing at all for the time I had been with him, because I did not complete my half year’s service; though he knew that I was not able, and had seen me working for the last fortnight as much as possible with one hand and arm, when I could not lift the other from my side. And what I thought was particularly hard, he never once tried to give me the least relief, further than once bleeding me, which rather did me hurt than good, as I was very weak, and much emaciated. I then went to my father’s, where I was confined for two months on account of my hurt, and despaired of ever recovering the use of my left arm. And during all that time the doctor never once came to see me, although the distance was not quite two miles. But my friend Mr Cantley hearing of my misfortune, at twelve miles’ distance, sent me proper medicines and applications, by means of which I recovered the use of my arm; but found myself too weak to think of going into service again, and had entirely lost my appetite, so that I could take nothing but a draught of milk once a day, for many weeks.

In order to amuse myself in this low state, I made a wooden clock, the frame of which was also of wood; and it kept time pretty well. The bell on which the hammer struck the hours was the neck of a broken bottle. Having then no idea how any time-keeper could go but by a weight and a line, I wondered how a watch could go in all positions, and was sorry that I had never thought of asking Mr Cantley, who could very easily have informed me. But happening one day to see a gentleman ride by my father’s house, which was close by a public road, I asked him what o’clock it then was: he looked at his watch, and told me. As he did that with so much good-nature, I begged of him to show me the inside of his watch; and though he was an entire stranger, he immediately opened the watch, and put it into my hands. I saw the spring-box with part of the chain round it, and asked him what it was that made the box turn round; he told me that it was turned round by a steel spring within it. Having then never seen any other spring than that of my father’s gun-lock, I asked how a spring within a box could turn the box so often round as to wind all the chain upon it. He answered that the spring was long and thin, that one end of it was fastened to the axis of the box, and the other end to the inside of the box, that the axis was fixed, and the box was loose upon it. I told him I did not yet thoroughly understand the matter:—‘Well, my lad,’ says he, ‘take a long thin piece of whalebone, hold one end of it fast between your finger and thumb, and wind it round your finger, it will then endeavour to unwind itself; and if you fix the other end of it to the inside of a small hoop, and leave it to itself, it will turn the hoop round and round, and wind up a thread tied to the outside of the hoop.’ I thanked the gentleman, and told him that I understood the thing very well. I then tried to make a watch with wooden wheels, and made the spring of whalebone; but found that I could not make the watch go when the balance was put on, because the teeth of the wheels were rather too weak to bear the force of a spring sufficient to move the balance; although the wheels would run fast enough when the balance was taken off. I enclosed the whole in a wooden case very little bigger than a breakfast teacup; but a clumsy neighbour one day looking at my watch, happened to let it fall, and turning hastily about to pick it up, set his foot upon it, and crushed it all to pieces; which so provoked my father, that he was almost ready to beat the man, and discouraged me so much that I never attempted to make such another machine again, especially as I was thoroughly convinced I could never make one that would be of any real use.

As soon as I was able to go abroad, I carried my globe, clock, and copies of some other maps besides that of the world, to the late Sir James Dunbar of Durn, about seven miles from where my father lived, as I had heard that Sir James was a very good-natured, friendly, inquisitive gentleman. He received me in a very kind manner, was pleased with what I showed him, and desired I would clean his clocks. This, for the first time, I attempted; and then began to pick up some money in that way about the country, making Sir James’s house my home at his desire.

Two large globular stones stood on the top of his gate; on one of them I painted with oil colours a map of the terrestrial globe, and on the other a map of the celestial, from a planisphere of the stars which I copied on paper from a celestial globe belonging to a neighbouring gentleman. The poles of the painted globes stood toward the poles of the heavens; on each the twenty-four hours were placed around the equinoctial, so as to show the time of the day when the sun shone out, by the boundary where the half of the globe at any time enlightened by the sun, was parted from the other half in the shade; the enlightened parts of the terrestrial globe answering to the like enlightened parts of the earth at all times. So that whenever the sun shone on the globe, one might see to what places the sun was then rising, to what places it was setting, and all the places where it was then day or night, throughout the earth.

During the time I was at Sir James’s hospitable house, his sister, the honourable lady Dipple came there on a visit, and Sir James introduced me to her. She asked me whether I could draw patterns for needle-work on aprons and gowns. On showing me some, I undertook the work, and drew several for her; some of which were copied from her patterns, and the rest I did according to my own fancy. On this, I was sent for by other ladies in the country, and began to think myself growing very rich by the money I got for such drawings, out of which I had the pleasure of occasionally supplying the wants of my poor father.

Yet all this while I could not leave off star-gazing in the nights, and taking the places of the planets among the stars by my above-mentioned thread. By this, I could observe how the planets changed their places among the stars, and delineated their paths on the celestial map, which I had copied from the above- mentioned celestial globe.

By observing what constellations the ecliptic passed through in that map, and comparing these with the starry heaven, I was so impressed as sometimes to imagine that I saw the ecliptic in the heaven, among the stars like a broad circular road for the sun’s apparent course; and fancied the paths of the planets to resemble the narrow ruts made by cart-wheels, sometimes on one side of a plain road, and sometimes on the other, crossing the road at small angles, but never going far from either side of it.

Sir James’s house was full of pictures and prints, several of which I copied with pen and ink; this made him think I might become a painter.

Lady Dipple had been but a few weeks there when William Baird, Esq. of Auchmedden came on a visit; he was the husband of one of that lady’s daughters, and I found him to be very ingenious and communicative; he invited me to go to his house, and stay some time with him, telling me that I should have free access to his library, which was a very large one, and that he would furnish me with all sorts of implements for drawing. I went thither, and stayed about eight months; but was much disappointed in finding no books of astronomy in his library, except what was in the two volumes of Harris’s Lexicon Technicum, although there were many books on geography and other sciences. Several of these indeed were in Latin, and more in French, which being languages that I did not understand, I had recourse to him for what I wanted to know of these subjects, which he cheerfully read to me; and it was as easy for him at sight to read English from a Greek, Latin, or French book, as from an English one. He furnished me with pencils and Indian ink, showing me how to draw with them; and although he had but an indifferent hand at that work, yet he was a very acute judge, and consequently a very fit person for showing me how to correct my own work. He was the first who ever sat to me for a picture; and I found it was much easier to draw from the life than from any picture whatever, as nature was more striking than any imitation of it.

Lady Dipple came to his house in about half a year after I went thither; and as they thought I had a genius for painting, they consulted together about what might be the best way to put me forward. Mr Baird thought it would be no difficult matter to make a collection for me among the neighbouring gentlemen, to put me to a painter at Edinburgh; but he found, upon trial, that nothing worth the while could be done among them: and as to himself, he could not do much that way, because he had but a small estate, and a very numerous family.

Lady Dipple then told me that she was to go to Edinburgh next spring, and that if I would go thither, she would give me a year’s bed and board at her house, gratis; and make all the interest she could for me among her acquaintance there. I thankfully accepted of her kind offer; and instead of giving me one year, she gave me two. I carried with me a letter of recommendation from the lord Pitsligo, a near neighbour of squire Baird’s, to Mr John Alexander, a painter in Edinburgh, who allowed me to pass an hour every day at his house, for a month, to copy from his drawings; and said he would teach me to paint in oil-colours if I would serve him seven years, and my friends would maintain me all that time; but this was too much for me to desire them to do, nor did I choose to serve so long. I was then recommended to other painters, but they would do nothing without money; so I was quite at a loss what to do.

In a few days after this, I received a letter of recommendation from my good friend squire Baird, to the Rev. Dr Robert Keith at Edinburgh, to whom I gave an account of my bad success among the painters there. He told me, that if I would copy from nature, I might do without their assistance, as all the rules for drawing signified but very little when one came to draw from the life; and by what he had seen of my drawings brought from the north, he judged I might succeed very well in drawing pictures from the life, in Indian ink, on vellum. He then sat to me for his own picture, and sent me with it, and a letter of recommendation, to the right honourable the lady Jane Douglas, who lived with her mother, the marchioness of Douglas, at Merchiston-house, near Edinburgh. Both the marchioness and lady Jane behaved to me in the most friendly manner, on Dr Keith’s account, and sat for their pictures, telling me at the same time, that I was in the very room in which lord Napier invented and computed the logarithms; and that if I thought it would inspire me, I should always have the same room whenever I came to Merchiston. I stayed there several days, and drew several pictures of lady Jane, of whom it was hard to say, whether the greatness of her beauty, or the goodness of her temper and disposition, was the most predominant. She sent these pictures to ladies of her acquaintance, in order to recommend me to them; by which means I soon had as much business as I could possibly manage, so as not only to put a good deal of money in my own pocket, but also to spare what was sufficient to help to supply my father and mother in their old age. Thus a business was providentially put into my hands, which I followed for six and twenty years.

Lady Dipple, being a woman of the strictest piety, kept a watchful eye over me at first, and made me give her an exact account at night of what families I had been in throughout the day, and of the money I had received. She took the money each night, desiring I would keep an account of what I had put into her hands; telling me, that I should duly have out of it what I wanted for clothes, and to send to my father. But in less than half a year, she told me that she would thenceforth trust me with being my own banker; for she had made a good deal of private inquiry how I had behaved when I was out of her sight through the day, and was satisfied with my conduct.

During my two years’ stay at Edinburgh, I somehow took a violent inclination to study anatomy, surgery, and physic, all from reading of books, and conversing with gentlemen on these subjects, which for that time put all thoughts of astronomy out of my mind; and I had no inclination to become acquainted with any one there who taught either mathematics or astronomy, for nothing would serve me but to be a doctor.

At the end of the second year I left Edinburgh, and went to see my father, thinking myself tolerably well qualified to be a physician in that part of the country, and I carried a good deal of medicines, plaisters, &c. thither; but to my mortification I soon found that all my medical theories and study were of little use in practice. And then, finding that very few paid me for the medicines they had, and that I was far from being so successful as I could wish, I quite left off that business, and began to think of taking to the more sure one of drawing pictures again. For this purpose I went to Inverness, where I had eight months’ business.

When I was there, I began to think of astronomy again, and was heartily sorry for having quite neglected it at Edinburgh, where I might have improved my knowledge by conversing with those who were very able to assist me. I began to compare the ecliptic with its twelve signs, through which the sun goes in twelve months, to the circle of twelve hours on the dial-plate of a watch, the hour-hand to the sun, and the minute hand to the moon, moving in the ecliptic, the one always overtaking the other at a place forwarder than it did at their last conjunction before. On this, I contrived and finished a scheme on paper, for showing the motions and places of the sun and moon in the ecliptic on each day of the year, perpetually; and consequently, the days of all the new and full moons.

To this I wanted to add a method for showing the eclipses of the sun and moon; of which I knew the cause long before, by having observed that the moon was for one half of her period on the north side of the ecliptic, and for the other half on the south. But not having observed her course long enough among the stars by my above-mentioned thread, so as to delineate her path on my celestial map, in order to find the two opposite points of the ecliptic in which her orbit crosses it, I was altogether at a loss how and where in the ecliptic, in my scheme, to place these intersecting points: this was in the year 1739.

At last, I recollected that when I was with squire Grant of Auchoynaney, in the year 1730, I had read, that on the 1st of January, 1690, the moon’s ascending node was in the 10th minute of the first degree of Aries; and that her nodes moved backward through the whole ecliptic in 18 years and 224 days, which was at the rate of 3 minutes 11 seconds every 24 hours. But as I scarce knew in the year 1730 what the moon’s nodes meant, I took no farther notice of it at that time.

However, in the year 1739, I set to work at Inverness; and after a tedious calculation of the slow motion of the nodes from January 1690, to January 1740, it appeared to me, that (if I was sure I had remembered right) the moon’s ascending node must be in 23 degrees 25 minutes of Cancer at the beginning of the year 1740. And so I added the eclipse part to my scheme, and called it, the Astronomical Rotula.

When I had finished it, I showed it to the Rev. Mr Alexander Macbean, one of the ministers at Inverness; who told me he had a set of almanacs by him for several years past, and would examine it by the eclipses mentioned in them. We examined it together, and found that it agreed throughout with the days of all the new and full moons and eclipses mentioned in these almanacs; which made me think I had constructed it upon true astronomical principles. On this, Mr Macbean desired me to write to Mr Maclaurin, professor of mathematics at Edinburgh, and give him an account of the methods by which I had formed my plan, requesting him to correct it where it was wrong. He returned me a most polite and friendly answer, although I had never seen him during my stay at Edinburgh, and informed me, that I had only mistaken the radical mean place of the ascending node by a quarter of a degree; and that if I would send the drawing of my rotula to him, he would examine it, and endeavour to procure me a subscription to defray the charges of engraving it on copper-plates, if I chose to publish it. I then made a new and correct drawing of it, and sent it to him: who soon got me a very handsome subscription, by setting the example himself, and sending subscription papers to others.

I then returned to Edinburgh, and had the rotula-plates engraved there by Mr Cooper. It has gone through several impressions; and always sold very well till the year 1752, when the style was changed, which rendered it quite useless. Mr Maclaurin received me with the greatest civility when I first went to see him at Edinburgh. He then became an exceeding good friend to me, and continued so till his death.

One day I requested him to show me his orrery, which he immediately did; I was greatly delighted with the motions of the earth and moon in it, and would gladly have seen the wheel-work, which was concealed in a brass box, and the box and planets above it were surrounded by an armillary sphere. But he told me, that he never had opened it; and I could easily perceive that it could not be opened but by the hand of some ingenious clock-maker, and not without a great deal of time and trouble.

After a good deal of thinking and calculation, I found that I could contrive the wheel-work for turning the planets in such a machine, and giving them their progressive motions; but should be very well satisfied if I could make an orrery to show the motions of the earth and moon, and of the sun round its axis. I then employed a turner to make me a sufficient number of wheels and axles, according to patterns which I gave him in drawings and after having cut the teeth in the wheels by a knife, and put the whole together, I found that it answered all my expectations. It showed the sun’s motion round its axis, the diurnal and annual motions of the earth on its inclined axis, which kept its parallelism in its whole course round the sun; the motions and phases of the moon, with the retrograde motion of the nodes of her orbit; and consequently, all the variety of seasons, the different lengths of days and nights, the days of the new and full moons, and eclipses.

When it was all completed except the box that covers the wheels, I showed it to Mr Maclaurin, who commended it in presence of a great many young gentlemen who attended his lectures. He desired me to read them a lecture on it, which I did without any hesitation, seeing I had no reason to be afraid of speaking before a great and good man who was my friend. Soon after that, I sent it in a present to the reverend and ingenious Mr Alexander Irvine, one of the ministers at Elgin, in Scotland.

I then made a smaller and neater orrery, of which all the wheels were of ivory, and I cut the teeth in them with a file. This was done in the beginning of the year 1743; and in May, that year, I brought it with me to London, where it was soon after bought by Sir Dudley Rider. I have made six orreries since that time, and there are not any two of them in which the wheel-work is alike, for I could never bear to copy one thing of that kind from another, because I still saw there was great room for improvements.

I had a letter of recommendation from Mr Baron Eldin at Edinburgh, to the right honourable Stephen Poyntz, Esq. at St James’s, who had been preceptor to his royal highness the late duke of Cumberland, and was well known to be possessed of all the good qualities that can adorn a human mind. To me, his goodness was really beyond my power of expression; and I had not been a month in London till he informed me, that he had written to an eminent professor of mathematics to take me into his house, and give me board and lodging, with all proper instructions to qualify me for teaching a mathematical school he (Mr Poyntz) had in view for me, and would get me settled in it. This I should have liked very well, especially as I began to be tired of drawing pictures; in which, I confess, I never strove to excel, because my mind was still pursuing things more agreeable. He soon after told me, he had just received an answer from the mathematical master, desiring I might be sent immediately to him. On hearing this, I told Mr Poyntz that I did not know how to maintain my wife during the time I must be under the master’s tuition. What, says he, are you a married man? I told him I had been so ever since May, in the year 1739. He said he was sorry for it, because it quite defeated his scheme, as the master of the school he had in view for me must be a bachelor.

He then asked me what business I intended to follow? I answered, that I knew of none besides that of drawing pictures. On this he desired me to draw the pictures of his lady and children, that he might show them, in order to recommend me to others; and told me, that when I was out of business I should come to him, and he would find me as much as he could; and I soon found as much as I could execute, but he died in a few years after, to my inexpressible grief.

Soon afterward, it appeared to me, that although the moon goes round the earth, and that the sun is far on the outside of the moon’s orbit, yet the moon’s motion must be in a line, that is, always concave toward the sun; and upon making a delineation representing her absolute path in the heavens, I found it to be really so. I then made a simple machine for delineating both her path and the earth’s on a long paper laid on the floor. I carried the machine and delineation to the late Martin Folkes, Esq. president of the royal society, on a Thursday-afternoon. He expressed great satisfaction at seeing it, as it was a new discovery; and took me that evening with him to the royal society, where I showed the delineation, and the method of doing it.

When the business of the society was over, one of the members desired me to dine with him next Saturday at Hackney, telling me that his name was Ellicott, and that he was a watchmaker.

I accordingly went to Hackney, and was kindly received by Mr John Ellicott, who then showed me the very same kind of delineation, and part of the machine by which he had done it; telling me that he had thought of it twenty years before. I could easily see by the colour of the paper, and of the ink lines upon it, that it must have been done many years before I saw it. He then told me what was very certain, that he had neither stolen the thought from me, nor had I from him. And from that time till his death, Mr Ellicott was one of my best friends. The figure of this machine and delineation is in the 7th plate of my book of Astronomy.

Soon after the style was changed, I had my rotula new engraved; but have neglected it too much, by not fitting it up and advertising it. After this, I drew out a scheme, and had it engraved, for showing all the problems of the rotula except the eclipses; and in place of that, it shows the times of rising and setting of the sun, moon, and stars; and the positions of the stars for any time of the night.

In the year 1747, I published a dissertation on the phenomena of the Harvest Moon, with the description of a new orrery, in which there are only four wheels. But having never had grammatical education, nor time to study the rules of just composition, I acknowledge that I was afraid to put it to the press; and for the same cause I ought to have the same fears still. But having the pleasure to find that this my first work was not ill received, I was emboldened to go on, in publishing my Astronomy, Mechanical Lectures, Tables and Tracts relative to several arts and sciences, the Young Gentleman and Lady’s Astronomy, a small treatise on Electricity, and the following sheets.

In the year 1748, I ventured to read lectures on the eclipse of the sun that fell on the 14th of July in that year. Afterwards I began to read astronomical lectures on an orrery which I made, and of which the figures of all the wheel-work are contained in the 6th and 7th plates of this book. I next began to make an apparatus for lectures on mechanics, and gradually increased the apparatus for other parts of experimental philosophy, buying from others what I could not make for myself, till I brought it to its present state. I then entirely left off drawing pictures, and employed myself in the much pleasanter business of reading lectures on mechanics, hydrostatics, hydraulics, pneumatics, electricity, and astronomy; in all which, my encouragement has been greater than I could have expected.

The best machine I ever contrived is the eclipsareon, of which there is a figure in the 13th plate of my Astronomy. It shows the time, quantity, duration, and progress of solar eclipses, at all parts of the earth. My next best contrivance is the universal dialing cylinder, of which there is a figure in the 8th plate of the supplement to my Mechanical Lectures.

It is now thirty years since I came to London, and during all that time I have met with the highest instances of friendship from all ranks of people, both in town and country, which I do here acknowledge with the utmost respect and gratitude; and particularly the goodness of our present gracious sovereign, who, out of his privy purse, allows me fifty pounds a year, which is regularly paid without any deduction."

To this narrative we shall add the few particulars which are necessary to complete the view of Ferguson’s life and character.

Ferguson was honoured with the royal bounty, which he himself mentions, through the mere zeal of king George III. in behalf of science. His majesty had attended some of the lectures of the ingenious astronomer, and often sent for him, after his accession, to converse upon scientific and curious topics. He had the extraordinary honour of being elected a member of the royal society, without paying either the initiatory or the annual fees, which were dispensed with in his case from a supposition of his being too poor to pay them without inconvenience. From the same idea, many persons gave him very handsome presents. But to the astonishment of all who knew him, he died worth about six thousand pounds.

"Ferguson," says Charles Hutton, in his Mathematical Dictionary, "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. He had also a good taste in astronomy, as well as in natural and experimental philosophy, and was possessed of a happy manner of explaining himself in a clear, easy, and familiar way. His general mathematical knowledge, however, was little or nothing. Of algebra he understood but little more than the notation; and he has often told me that he could never demonstrate one proposition in Euclid’s Elements; his constant method being to satisfy himself as to the truth of any problem, with a measurement by scale and compasses." He was a man of very clear judgment in any thing that he professed, and of unwearied application to study: benevolent, meek, and innocent in his manners as a child: humble, courteous, and communicative: instead of pedantry, philosophy seemed to produce in him only diffidence and urbanity—a love for mankind and for his Maker. His whole life was an example of resignation and christian piety. He might be called an enthusiast in his love of God, if religion founded on such substantial and enlightened grounds as his was, could be like enthusiasm. After a long and useful life, unhappy in his family connections, in a feeble and precarious state of health, worn out with study, age, and infirmities, he died on the 16th of November, 1776.

"Ferguson’s only daughter," says Mr Nichols in his life of Bowyer, "was lost in a very singular manner, at about the age of eighteen. She was remarkable for the elegance of her person, the agreeableness and vivacity of her conversation, and in philosophic genius and knowledge, worthy of such a father. His son, Mr Murdoch Ferguson, was a surgeon, and attempted to settle at Bury, staid but a little while, went to sea, was cast away, and lost his all, a little before his father’s death, but found himself in no bad plight after that event. He had another son, who studied at Marischal college, Aberdeen, from 1772 to 1777, and afterwards, it is believed, applied to physic."

The astronomer has been thus elegantly noticed in "Eudosia, a poem on the universe " by Mr Capel Lloft:

"Nor shall thy guidance but conduct our feet,
0 honoured shepherd of our later days!
Thee, from the flocks, while thy untutored soul,
Mature in childhood, traced the starry course,
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."

Life of James Ferguson, F.R.S., 1710-1776
In a brief autobiographical account and further extended Memoir by Ebeneezer Henderson (1867) (pdf)

Select mechanical exercises
shewing how to construct different clocks, orreries, and sun-dials, on plain and easy principles: with several miscellaneous articles, and new tables to which is prefixed, a short account of the life of the author (1773) (pdf)

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