Papers of James Ferguson (1710-1776)

Archive Collection

Administrative / Biographical History

The astronomer James Ferguson was born at the Core of Mayen, near Rothiemay in Banffshire, on 25 April 1710. While still a small child he acquired an interest in mechanics, and already working at the age of ten - tending sheep - he was able to study the stars at night and make models of spinning-wheels and mills during the day. As a young man he first earned a living by cleaning clocks and repairing domestic machinery. In his spare time he constructed a wooden clock and watch with wooden wheels and whalebone springs. This mechanical talent would later assist in his construction of astronomical models. Showing artistic talent too, he made his way as a portrait painter in Edinburgh in 1734 and in Inverness in 1736. While in Inverness, Ferguson had returned to his earlier interest in the stars and prepared an astronomical table which was published in the 1740s, and in 1742 he constructed an orrery. In 1743 he was in London, again painting portraits but also continuing his astronomical research. Some papers were written, one of which -  On the phenomena of Venus, represented in an orrery - was presented before the Royal Society in March 1746. In 1748, Ferguson began a career as a science teacher and lecturer, delivering courses on astronomy and a wide range of experimental science. In 1752-1753 he was lecturing on the reform of the calendar and the lunar eclipse of 1753. Although he had become very well known through his popularisation of science, he was far from well off, but by 1760 he was able to stop portrait-painting for a living. In 1763 he presented to the Royal Society a projection of the partial solar eclipse of 1 April 1764 showing its times and phases at Greenwich. In 1767, Ferguson visited Scotland, and soon after the visit he introduced a lecture on electricity into his courses. His publications include  Astronomy explained on Sir Isaac Newton's principles  (1756),  Lectures on select subjects in mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics (1760),  Introduction to electricity (1770),  Select mechanical exercises (1773), and  The art of drawing in perspective made easy to those who have no previous knowledge of the mathematics (1775). James Ferguson died in London on 16 November 1776.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Astronomical clock purchased, June 1969, Accession no. E79.40. Printed rotula transferred from New College Library, December 1993, Accession no. E93.124


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Leslie. and Lee, Sidney (eds.).  Dictionary of national biography. Vol.6. Drant-Finan. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show a reference to letters about the Ferguson common-place book from E. Henderson to D. Laing, at La.IV.17. The local Indexes also show one or two references to Ferguson related material (check the Indexes for more details) which may be attributed to him incorrectly, namely: items at Gen. 873/1. Otherwise, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: papers, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, NRA 32554, and legal correspondence and papers, 1754-1777, Ref. MS 1273 Royal Soc Edinburgh; astronomical MSS, Oxford University: Museum of the History of Science NRA 9532 Oxford scientific; and, letters to Sir A. Grant, 1761, National Archives of Scotland, Ref. GD345/1167 NRA 10160 Grant.