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By Alison Boyle on

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.

2 comments on “Celebrating James Ferguson

  1. 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. 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).

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