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Self-educated men continued. Ferguson.-Influence of accident in
directing pursuits. Rennie ; Linnæus; Vernet; Caravaggio ; Tassie; Chatterton; Harrison; Edwards ; Villars; Joly; Jourdan i Bandinelli; Palissy.
AMONG self-educated men there are few who claim more of our admiration than the celebrated JAMES FERGUSON. If ever any one was literally his own instructor in the very elements of knowledge, it was he. Acquisitions that have scarcely in any other case, and probably never by one so young, been made without the assistance either of books or a living teacher, were the discoveries of his solitary and almost illiterate boyhood. There are few more interesting narratives in any language than the account which Ferguson himself has given of his early history. He was born in the year 1710, a few miles from the village of Keith, in Banffshire; his parents, as he tells us, being in the humblest condition of life (for his father was merely a day-labourer,) but religious and honest. It was his father's practice to teach his children himself to read and write, as they successively reached what he deemed the proper age; but James was too impatient to wait till his regular turn came. While his father was teaching one of his elder brothers, James was secretly occupied in listening to what was going on; and, as soon as he was left alone, used to get hold of the book and work hard in endeavouring to master the lesson which he had thus heard gone over. Being ashamed, as he says, to let his father know what he was about, he was wont to apply to an old woman who lived in a neighbouring cottage to solve his difficulties. In
this way he actually learned to read tolerably well before his father had any suspicion that he knew his letters. His father at last, very much to his surprise, detected him one day reading by himself, and thus found out his secret.
When he was about seven or eight years of age, a simple incident occurred which seems to have given his mind its first bias to what became afterwards its favourite kind of pursuit. The roof of the cottage having partly fallen in, his father, in order to raise it again, applied to it a beam, resting on a prop in the manner of a lever, and was thus enabled, with comparative ease, to produce what seemed to his son quite a stupendous effect. The circumstance set our young philosopher thinking; and, after a while, it struck him that his father in using the beam had applied his strength to its extremity, and this, he immediately concluded, was probably an important circumstance in the matter. He proceeded to verify his notion by experiment; and having made several levers, which he called bars, soon not only found that he was right in his conjecture, as to the importance of applying the moving force at the point most distant from the fulcrum, but discovered the rule or law of the machine, namely, that the effect of any form or weight made to bear upon it is always exactly proportioned to the distance of the point on which it rests from the fulcrum. “ I then,” says he,
thought that it was a great pity that by means of this bar, a weight could be raised but a very little way. On this, I soon imagined that by pulling round a wheel, the weight might be raised to any height, by tying a rope to the weight, and winding the
rope round the axle of the wheel ; and that the power gained must be just as great as the wheel was broader than the axle was thick; and found it to be exactly so, by hanging one weight to a rope put
'round the wheel, and another to the rope that coiled round the axle.” The child had thus, it will be observed, actually discovered two of the most important elementary truths in mechanics--the lever, and the wheel and axle; he afterwards hit upon others; and, all the while, he had not only possessed neither book nor teacher to assist him, but was without any other tools, than a simple turning lathe of his father's, and a little knife wherewith to fashion his blocks and wheels, and the other contrivances he needed for his experiments. After having made his discoveries, however, he next, he tells us, proceeded to write an account of them; thinking his little work, which contained sketches of the different machines drawn with a pen, to be the first treatise ever composed of the sort. When, some time after, a gentleman shewed him the whole in a printed book, although he found that he had been anticipated in his inventions, he was much pleased, as he was well entitled to be, on thus perceiving that his unaided genius had already carried him so far into what was acknowledged to be the region of true philosophy.
It is a ludicrous blunder that the French astronomer, Lalande, makes, in speaking of Ferguson, when he designates him, as Berger au Roi d'Angleterre en Ecosse;" the King of England's Shepherd for Scotland. He had no claim to this pompous title; but it is true that he spent some of his early years as a keeper of sheep, though in the employment not of the state, but of a small farmer in the neighbourhood of his native place. He was sent to this occupation, he tells us, as being of weak body; and while his flock was feeding around him, he used to busy himself in making models of mills, spinning wheels, &c. during the day, and in studying the stars at night, like his predecessors of Chaldæa. When a little older he went into the service of another
farmer, a respectable man called James Glashan, whose name well deserves to be remembered. After the labours of the day, young Ferguson used to go at night to the fields, with a blanket about him and a lighted candle, and there, laying himself down on his back, pursued for long hours, his observations on the heavenly bodies. “I used to stretch,” says he, thread with small beads on it, at arms-length, between my eye and the stars; sliding the beads upon it, till they hid such and such stars from my eye, in order to take their apparent distances from one another; and then laying the thread down on a paper, I marked the stars thereon by the beads." "My master,” he adds, “ at first laughed at me; but when I explained my meaning to him, he encouraged me to go on; and, that I might make fair copies in the day time of what I had done in the night, he often worked for me himself. I shall always have a respect for the memory of that man.” Having been employed by his master to carry a message to Mr. Gilchrist, the minister of Keith, he took with him the drawings he had been making, and shewed them to that gentleman. Mr. Gilchrist upon this put a map into his hands, and having supplied him with compasses, ruler, pens, ink, and paper, desired him to take it home with him, and bring back a copy of it. “For this pleasant employment,
my master gave me more time than I could reasonably expect; and often took the threshing flail out of my hands, and worked himself, while I sat by him in the barn, busy with my compasses, ruler, and pen.” This is a beautiful, we may well say, and even a touching picture the good man so generously appreciating the worth of knowledge and genius, that, although the master, he voluntarily exchanges situations with his servant, and insists upon doing the work that must be done, himself, in
order that the latter may give his more precious talents to their more appropriate vocation. We know not that there is on record an act of homage to science and learning more honourable to the author. : Having finished his map, Ferguson carried it to Mr. Gilchrist's, and there he met Mr. Grant of Achoynamey, who offered to take him into his house, and make his butler give him lessons. “I told Squire Grant,” says he, “that I should rejoice to be at his house, as soon as the time was expired for which I was engaged with my present master. He very politely offered to put one in my place, but this I declined.” When the period in question arrived, accordingly, he went to Mr. Grant's, being now in his twentieth year.
Here he found both good friend and a very extraordinary man, in Cantley the butler, who had first fixed his attention, by a sun-dial which he happened to be engaged in painting on the village schoolhouse, as Ferguson was passing along the road, on his second visit to Mr. Gilchrist. Dialing, however, was only one of the many accomplishments of this learned butler, who Ferguson assures us was profoundly conversant both with arithmetic and mathematics, played on every known musical instrument except the harp, understood Latin, French, and Greek, and could let blood and prescribe for diseases. These multifarious attainments, he owed, we are told, entirely to himself and to nature; on which account, Ferguson designates him “ God Almighty's scholar."
From this person Ferguson received instructions in Decimal Fractions and Algebra, having already made himself master of Vulgar Arithmetic, by the assistance of books. Just as he was about, however, to begin Geometry, Cantley left his place for another in the establishment of the Earl of Fife, and his pupil thereupon determined to return home to his father.