James Ferguson of London, England.

James Ferguson (1710-1776) was one of the most highly regarded and successful popularizers of natural science in the 18th century. He was the self-taught son of a Scottish tenant farmer, that at a very young age, demonstrated a great intellectual curiosity together with a talent for mechanics. In his teens and early 20’s, Ferguson worked for the local gentry, maintaining clocks and repairing machinery. One of his patron’s sent him to Edinburgh where he was trained to be a painter of miniatures. Although he made his living as a limner for many years, he took up the study of astronomy and he soon attracted the attention of the mathematician Colin Maclaurin. He did this by producing a device that consisted of series of concentric volvelles which could be rotated to calculate the positions of the Sun and Moon and predict eclipses. With the professor’s help, Ferguson published this “Astronomical Rotula” in 1742. He soon moved to London where he made and sold globes.

James Ferguson was the rare individual who was able to present the ideas of astronomy in clear accessible language. In 1756, he published a highly successful and popular non mathematical text, Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles. For the rest of his life he was a widely respected lecturer on popular astronomy and other scientific topics that he illustrated with demonstration apparatus of his own design.

Neither a professional astronomer nor clockmaker, he was nevertheless well respected by the scientific and horological communities. Ferguson’s talent lay in the ability to devise wheel work to demonstrate celestial phenomena. He designed dials for the important four sided astronomical clock in the English Royal Collection. This clock was made by Eardley Norton for George lll in 1765. Ultimately he was granted a pension by George lll and in 1763, he was elected to the Royal Society.