Tag Archives: ferguson

Principles of Astronomy as detailed in an atlas by James Ferguson

Ferguson’s planetary phases diagram.

While combing through the vast amount of science related items we hold in Special Collections & Archives, I came across quite the peculiar book. I decided to scour the stacks for it as astronomy has always interested me and I was hoping for some interesting images. I knew from my initial search in the catalog that this item held images; a total of 25 plates, in fact, however what exactly those were was a mystery.

James Ferguson’s
Atlas of plates illustrative of Ferguson’s principles of astronomy is a book that holds multiple illustrations of astronomy related technology from the 1800’s. Ferguson was a Scottish astronomer best
known as the individual who improved and invented many astronomical and other scientific instruments, many of which can be found imaged in this atlas. Surprisingly, the totality of Ferguson’s formal education was met at a single grammar school at Keith in his younger years. His works within the field of astronomy and other sciences can thus only be attributed to his own self discipline, and an ambition to study the sciences.


Remaining cover of the atlas.

The cover of the atlas was made of a cloth fabric that was designed to look like leather, a cheaper alternative for the time, and only has a few pieces left attached to the bare surface show in the image to the left. It is a delicate artifact that needs support when opened however the pages themselves are mostly intact.

I couldn’t help think the images I found in this atlas were the epitome of aesthetic pleasantries. The amount of suns with faces was something I enjoyed most along with the inclusion of zodiac related constellations. Although this is a nice book to look at, there aren’t very many descriptions to go along with them, save for those found on the Orrery illustration on the first page and that found on the map of the world found in the very back of the atlas (see slideshow below for map). As someone who isn’t versed in this subject, I found it difficult to understand not only what these devices were but what they were used for. Despite this, the appreciation for the work itself is still present as it is clearly a magnificent collection of one man’s journey of discovery and invention.

Although his inventions are used for scientific inquiry, they were an item that caught the eye of a totally different set of individuals. I find it funny when researching Ferguson that many of his creations lean more toward the genre of clock-making than scientific discovery, despite the fact that they go hand-in-hand in this particular case. Many of his books detail designs for astronomical clocks that give time of day as well as day of the month, phases of the moon, and the position of the stars. Sometimes, his clocks would even include the state of the tide. If I had a clock like that, I’d want to show it to everyone and, clearly, this sentiment was not lost on clock-makers as they used his designs to build some of the greatest functioning timepieces of the time.

Fascinatingly enough, I’d never heard of James Ferguson until now. When most people think of the sciences, astronomy in particular, names like Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Newton, or Johannes Kepler come to mind and rightly so. These scientists created many works and made many discoveries that have led up to where we are today. Ferguson is not lacking in these works either. He produced a number of books during his life, including The use of a new orrery… (1746), Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s principles… (1756), The young gentleman and lady’s astronomy (1768), and The art of drawing in perspective… (1775). 

Regardless of how well-known Ferguson is today, he was widely influential in his own time and has been mentioned by personalities such as Founding Father Thomas Paine and German experimental physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who is most known for his discovery and study of the Lichtenberg figure which is named after him. Ferguson died in London on November 17, 1776, leaving works like this extraordinarily illustrated atlas as a legacy.


You can explore this item further at the Special Collections Research Center at Strozier Library.

  • Plate 11 of the 17 still present in the atlas.

Sources:

https://blogs.adelaide.edu.au/special-collections/2016/11/28/astronomy-explained-upon-sir-isaac-newtons-principles-james-ferguson-1757/

All image are taken by and credited to the author of the blog.