James Ferguson lived from 25 April 1710 to 17 November 1776. He was a self-taught instrument maker and astronomer. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Ferguson was born into a poor family living at Rothiemay, north of Huntly. He learned to read by watching his father teach his older brother, and by the time James' turn came, his father found him already able to read. Ferguson's only formal education came during three months spent at Keith grammar school when he was seven. At the age of 10 he was sent to be a shepherd on a neighbour's farm.
He spent his days making models of mills and other agricultural machines he saw in the countryside around him, and his nights looking at the stars. He subsequently made a clock using wooden gears and a whalebone spring. His obvious skills were spotted by a local landowner, who employed him to clean his clocks. In 1734 Ferguson moved to Edinburgh and established himself as a painter of miniature portraits. Subsequently, while living in Inverness, he published Astronomical Rotula for showing the motions of the planets, places of the sun and moon, &c.,
From 1743 he lived in London, working as an instrument maker and inventing a series of astronomical and other scientific instruments. Within five years he had also established himself as a successful lecturer on experimental philosophy. He then proceeded to tour England giving extremely popular lectures supported by clear diagrams and working models. He also published a number of further books intended to popularise science and, in particular, astronomy.
In 1763 Ferguson became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died in London in 1776, having been supported by a Government pension in his retirement in recognition of his wide ranging contributions to the advancement of science. Quite how James Ferguson managed to achieve all he did given his poor background and almost no formal education is a mystery. Still more intriguing is the thought of what he might have achieved if he had received the upbringing and education available to the privileged levels of society in his day.