Celebrating James Ferguson

Walk into any museum curator’s office and you’ll encounter a mass of books and papers. It’s not that we’re messy – well okay, I am – but a lot of the material we use can’t always be found on the web. Even on Stories from the Stores.

One of my favourite books on my shelves is Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles by James Ferguson, who was born 300 years ago last Sunday. Published in 1785 (the first edition was 1756), it’s intended ‘for those who have not studied mathematics’ and contains beautifully illustrated explanations of how the Solar System works.

Ferguson in his study. (Science Museum)

Ferguson travelled around England giving lectures on natural philosophy. These were hugely popular, aided by the ingenious models he built to demonstrate scientific phenomena.

Ferguson's wooden orrery (c. 1755) uses hand-driven pulleys to demonstrate the motion of the Earth, Sun and Moon. (Science Museum)

Before moving to England and making his name as a lecturer, Ferguson lived in Edinburgh where he made a living as a miniature portrait painter. These pencil-and-ink miniatures show his talent:

Portrait miniatures made by Ferguson in the 18th century. (Science Museum)

And although you can’t find everything on the web that you can in a curator’s office, you can find out more about Ferguson for yourself by reading his autobiography here, and enjoy Astronomy Explained here.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating James Ferguson

  1. Justin Ketterer

    For another great book about physics in layman’s terms, explained in an enjoyable (and even humorous) format, I highly recommend Yakov Perelman’s “Physics for Entertainment.” It was great fun; published around the 1870′s, if I recall correctly.

  2. Chris Brewchorne

    I ave always been interested in models and astronomy. Have just found out that James Ferguson is my great great great great great grandfather. (My mother was born Ferguson).

  3. Avis Louise

    I am curious about the art of James Ferguson. Our family has in it possession a miniature of Murdoch Ferguson and looks to be drawn in pencil. The framing around it looks like the ones in the miniatures above. On the back, in very tiny writing, “Murdock Ferguson done by this father James Ferguson. This is a miniature of Murdock Ferguson, son of the (Ustrong) and presented to E. Henderson. ( ) on Dec. 11, 1969, Mrs. Bowie, widow of the late Rev. Dm Bowie of Kinghorn. This minature appears to have been done about 1755, when the boy was 3 years old. he was born Nov. 3, 1772 and appears to have died in 18( ).” This piece has been passed down in the family (I suspect from either the Gillespie or Hastings line) but I can not figure out how it connects to us or how the family got it.


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