Thomas Wright (astronomer)

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Thomas Wright in 1737 Thomas Wright (astronomer) 1737.jpg
Thomas Wright in 1737
Theory or new Hypothesis of the Universe Wright - Theory or new Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 - 778139 F.tif
Theory or new Hypothesis of the Universe

Thomas Wright (22 September 1711 25 February 1786) was an English astronomer, mathematician, instrument maker, architect and garden designer. He was the first to describe the shape of the Milky Way and to speculate that faint nebulae were distant galaxies.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

Astronomer Scientist who studies celestial bodies

An astronomer is a scientist in the field of astronomy who focuses their studies on a specific question or field outside the scope of Earth. They observe astronomical objects such as stars, planets, moons, comets, and galaxies – in either observational or theoretical astronomy. Examples of topics or fields astronomers study include planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. Related but distinct subjects like physical cosmology, which studies the Universe as a whole.

Mathematician person with an extensive knowledge of mathematics

A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in his or her work, typically to solve mathematical problems.


Early life

Wright was born at Byers Green in County Durham being the third son of John and Margaret Wright of Pegg's Poole House. [1] His father was a carpenter. [2] He was educated at home as he suffered from speech impediment and then at King James I Academy. In 1725 he entered into clock-making apprenticeship to Bryan Stobart of Bishop Auckland, continuing to study on his own. He also took courses on mathematics and navigation at a free school in the parish of Gateshead founded by Dr. Theophilus Pickering. Then, he went to London to study mathematical instrument-making with Heath and Sisson and made a trial sea voyage to Amsterdam.

Byers Green village in United Kingdom

Byers Green is a village in County Durham, in England. It is situated to the north of Bishop Auckland, between Willington and Spennymoor, and a short distance from the River Wear.

County Durham County of England

County Durham is a county in North East England. The county town is Durham, a cathedral city. The largest settlement is Darlington, closely followed by Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees. It borders Tyne and Wear to the north east, Northumberland to the north, Cumbria to the west and North Yorkshire to the south. The county's historic boundaries stretch between the rivers Tyne and Tees, thus including places such as Gateshead, Jarrow, South Shields and Sunderland.

Speech disorders or speech impediments are a type of communication disorder where 'normal' speech is disrupted. This can mean stuttering, lisps, etc. Someone who is unable to speak due to a speech disorder is considered mute.

In 1730, he set up a school in Sunderland, where he taught mathematics and navigation. [3] He later moved back to London to work on a number of projects for his wealthy patrons. That was before retiring to County Durham and building a small observatory at Westerton.

Navigation The process of monitoring and controlling the movement of a craft or vehicle from one place to another

Navigation is a field of study that focuses on the process of monitoring and controlling the movement of a craft or vehicle from one place to another. The field of navigation includes four general categories: land navigation, marine navigation, aeronautic navigation, and space navigation.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital of and largest city in England and the United Kingdom, and the largest city in the European Union. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Observatory location used for observing terrestrial or celestial events

An observatory is a location used for observing terrestrial or celestial events. Astronomy, climatology/meteorology, geophysical, oceanography and volcanology are examples of disciplines for which observatories have been constructed. Historically, observatories were as simple as containing an astronomical sextant or Stonehenge.

Wright's observatory/folly at Westerton, County Durham WrightsObservatoryWesterton(HughMortimer)Jan2007.jpg
Wright's observatory/folly at Westerton, County Durham


Wright's publication An original theory or new hypothesis of the Universe (1750) explained the appearance of the Milky Way as "an optical effect due to our immersion in what locally approximates to a flat layer of stars." [4]

His idea was taken up and elaborated by Immanuel Kant in his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens .[ citation needed ] Another of his ideas, which is also often attributed to Kant, was that many faint nebulae are actually incredibly distant galaxies. Wright wrote: [5] [6]

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

<i>Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens</i> literary work by Immanuel Kant

Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, subtitled or an Attempt to Account for the Constitutional and Mechanical Origin of the Universe upon Newtonian Principles, is a work written and published anonymously by Immanuel Kant in 1755.

...the many cloudy spots, just perceivable by us, as far without our Starry regions, in which tho' visibly luminous spaces, no one star or particular constituent body can possibly be distinguished; those in all likelihood may be external creation, bordering upon the known one, too remote for even our telescopes to reach.

Wright emphasised that Earth and the human race are insignificant and transitory parts of a vast universe: [7] [8]

In this great Celestial Creation, the Catastrophy of a World, such as ours, or even the total Dissolution of a System of Worlds, may possibly be no more to the great Author of Nature, than the most common Accident in Life with us, and in all Probability such final and general DoomsDays may be as frequent there, as even Birth-Days or Mortality with us upon this Earth.

Garden design

Wright has been credited with work for William Capel, 3rd Earl of Essex at Cassiobury Park in Watford, illustrating his designs in A Walk in Cassiobury Gardens and Views of Cassiobury. In Grotesque Architecture of 1767 there is a design for a rockwork bridge to decorate "the fine piece of water" he had "with great pleasure seen... at Cassiobury", believed[ by whom? ] to be by Wright. A man of talents, he also gave the Earl's daughters mathematical instruction. Another patron was the Earl of Halifax, at Horton House.

In the 1750s, he laid out the grounds of Netheravon House, Wiltshire. [9] He designed in 1769 the folly or eye-catcher known as Codger Fort [10] at Rothley, Northumberland, on the Wallington Hall estate.

He was also credited with expanding the Grand Orrery [ where? ] to include Saturn.


Wright died in 1786 in Byers Green and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's, South Church, Bishop Auckland. He was survived by his illegitimate daughter.

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  1. Thomas Wright, Durham University Library, Archives and Special Collections
  2. History and characteristics of Bishop Auckland by Matthew Richley
  3. Biographical History of Mr. Thomas Wright, The Gentleman's Magazine, January 1793, Volume 73, p. 9.
  4. Thomas Wright, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe… (London, England: H. Chapelle, 1750). From p.48: "...the stars are not infinitely dispersed and distributed in a promiscuous manner throughout all the mundane space, without order or design,... this phænomenon [is] no other than a certain effect arising from the observer's situation,.... To a spectator placed in an indefinite space,... it [i.e., the Milky Way (Via Lactea)] [is] a vast ring of stars.… "
  5. Wright (1750), pages 83-84.
  6. quoted from An original theory or new hypothesis of the universe by Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 1979, pg 245, ISBN   0-330-26324-2
  7. Wright (1750), page 76.
  8. Rees, M. (12 July 2003). "Our greatest quest". New Scientist: 30–34. Retrieved 11 December 2008. Quotes Wright's book An Original Theory of (sic) New Hypothesis of the Universe
  9. Historic England. "Netheravon House (1299956)". National Heritage List for England . Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  10. Historic England. "Codger Fort (1371062)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 23 June 2019.