25th April 1710

Inventor and astronomer James Ferguson is born

Astronomer James Ferguson wasn’t content to stick with off-the-shelf kit when his own inventions could deliver what he was after. He was largely self-educated and was greatly inspired by what he saw going on around him. He applied what he observed in the construction of various gadgets, including a clock and a watch, while employed as a shepherd and spending his nights looking up at the stars.

This skill for observation led to him first pursuing art as a possible profession, but later studied in Edinburgh, then worked in Inverness where he constructed a device that would accurately show the position of the planets on any given day of the year.

Science and art

He finally moved to London where he continued painting portraits, which allowed him to indulge in his love of science. He wrote several papers, one of which described what the seasons would be like on Venus. When he needed to demonstrate something in a practical manner, he would often invent a machine to suit, and his collection later included self-built astronomical clocks and tide tracking devices. He became friendly with the royal family and often met the king to discuss astronomical matters.

Ferguson became famous during his lifetime for his inventions, his discoveries and his writing, to the extent where, in 1774, he prefixed his Select Mechanical Exercises with a short biography that aimed to put to bed several inaccuracies. “I was born in the year 1710, a few miles from Keith, a little village in Banffshire, in the north of Scotland,” he wrote, in a tract that was republished in The Scots Magazine on 1 January, “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.”

Early innovations

He described how the interest in mechanics that would come to define his life came about, noting, “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 level which was furthest from the prop; and finding, on inquiry, that this was the means whereby the seeming wonder was effected, I begun making levers…”

At that point, the young Ferguson’s future path had been set.

He died, aged 66, in November 1776 and was buried in Marylebone, London.



Other events that occured in April

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