Thomas Wright (astronomer)

Last updated

Portrait of Thomas Wright Thomas Wright (astronomer).jpg
Portrait of Thomas Wright

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 nebulæ were distant galaxies.


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.

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. He traveled in 1746-7 to Ireland which resulted in a book, Louthiana, with plans and engravings of the ancient monuments of County Louth, published in London in 1748. That was before retiring to County Durham and building a small observatory at Westerton.


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] This work influenced Immanuel Kant in writing his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755). [5] The theory was later empirically advanced by William Herschel in 1785, [6] leading to galactocentrism (a form of heliocentrism, with the Sun at the center of the Milky Way). Another of Wright's ideas, which is also often attributed to Kant, was that many faint nebulæ are actually incredibly distant galaxies. Wright wrote: [7] [8]

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

...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.

Kant termed these "island universes." However "scientific arguments were marshalled against such a possibility," and this view was rejected by almost all scientists until 1924, when Edwin Hubble showed "spiral nebulæ" were distant galaxies by measuring Cepheids. [9]

In his letters, Wright emphasised the possible enormity of the universe, and the tranquility of eternity: [10]

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.

Such a Prothesis can scarce be called less than an ocular Revelation, not only shewing us how reasonable it is to expect a future Life, but as it were, pointing out to us the Business of an Eternity, and what we may with the greatest Confidence expect from the eternal Providence, dignifying our Natures with something analogous to the Knowledge we attribute to Angels; from whence we ought to despise all the Vicissitudes of adverse Fortune, which make so many narrow-minded Mortals miserable.

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 and after 1753, completed the design and construction of Horton Hall in Northamptonshire and gardens. [11] He designed in 1769 the folly or eye-catcher known as Codger Fort [12] at Rothley, Northumberland, on the Wallington Hall estate.

One of the largest existing examples of Wright's work is the Stoke Park Estate. [13] The estate was remodelled by Wright between 1748 and 1766.


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.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edwin Hubble</span> American astronomer (1889–1953)

Edwin Powell Hubble was an American astronomer. He played a crucial role in establishing the fields of extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Galaxy</span> Large gravitationally bound system of stars and interstellar matter

A galaxy is a system of stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, dark matter, bound together by gravity. The word is derived from the Greek galaxias (γαλαξίας), literally 'milky', a reference to the Milky Way galaxy that contains the Solar System. Galaxies, averaging an estimated 100 million stars, range in size from dwarfs with less than a hundred million stars, to the largest galaxies known – supergiants with one hundred trillion stars, each orbiting its galaxy's center of mass. Most of the mass in a typical galaxy is in the form of dark matter, with only a few percent of that mass visible in the form of stars and nebulae. Supermassive black holes are a common feature at the centres of galaxies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nebula</span> Body of interstellar clouds

A nebula is a distinct luminescent part of interstellar medium, which can consist of ionized, neutral or molecular hydrogen and also cosmic dust. Nebulae are often star-forming regions, such as in the "Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula. In these regions, the formations of gas, dust, and other materials "clump" together to form denser regions, which attract further matter, and eventually will become dense enough to form stars. The remaining material is then thought to form planets and other planetary system objects.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to physics:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">William Herschel</span> German-born British astronomer and composer (1738–1822)

Frederick William Herschel was a German-born British astronomer and composer. He frequently collaborated with his younger sister and fellow astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750–1848). Born in the Electorate of Hanover, William Herschel followed his father into the military band of Hanover, before emigrating to Great Britain in 1757 at the age of nineteen.

The following is a timeline of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and large-scale structure of the universe.

This timeline of cosmological theories and discoveries is a chronological record of the development of humanity's understanding of the cosmos over the last two-plus millennia. Modern cosmological ideas follow the development of the scientific discipline of physical cosmology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Johann Heinrich Lambert</span>

Johann Heinrich Lambert was a polymath from the Republic of Mulhouse, generally referred to as either Swiss or French, who made important contributions to the subjects of mathematics, physics, philosophy, astronomy and map projections.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harlow Shapley</span> American scientist and political activist (1885–1972)

Harlow Shapley was an American scientist, head of the Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952), and political activist during the latter New Deal and Fair Deal.

Tired light is a class of hypothetical redshift mechanisms that was proposed as an alternative explanation for the redshift-distance relationship. These models have been proposed as alternatives to the models that require metric expansion of space of which the Big Bang and the Steady State cosmologies are the most famous examples. The concept was first proposed in 1929 by Fritz Zwicky, who suggested that if photons lost energy over time through collisions with other particles in a regular way, the more distant objects would appear redder than more nearby ones. Zwicky himself acknowledged that any sort of scattering of light would blur the images of distant objects more than what is seen. Additionally, the surface brightness of galaxies evolving with time, time dilation of cosmological sources, and a thermal spectrum of the cosmic microwave background have been observed—these effects should not be present if the cosmological redshift was due to any tired light scattering mechanism. In 2006 an alternative model named "New Tired Light" was proposed by Lyndon Ashmore. In this model the energy loss of photons over distance is due to recoil of electrons as they interact with photons, absorb and re-emit primary and secondary radiation, leading to red-shifting. As the primary radiation upon re-emission is in the line of sight, no blurring would ensue. Additionally in a paper was published which reported that for the first time the dispersion measure of a fast radio burst and the redshift of a host galaxy had been found, these results were within 1.2% margin of error predicted by New Tired Light ten years prior.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Debate (astronomy)</span> 1920 debate between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis on whether there were other galaxies

The Great Debate, also called the Shapley–Curtis Debate, was held on 26 April 1920 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis. It concerned the nature of so-called spiral nebulae and the size of the universe. Shapley believed that these nebulae were relatively small and lay within the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, while Curtis held that they were in fact independent galaxies, implying that they were exceedingly large and distant.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Byers Green</span> Human settlement in England

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cosmology</span> Scientific study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe

Cosmology is a branch of physics and metaphysics dealing with the nature of the universe. The term cosmology was first used in English in 1656 in Thomas Blount's Glossographia, and in 1731 taken up in Latin by German philosopher Christian Wolff, in Cosmologia Generalis. Religious or mythological cosmology is a body of beliefs based on mythological, religious, and esoteric literature and traditions of creation myths and eschatology. In the science of astronomy, cosmology is concerned with the study of the chronology of the universe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Milky Way</span> Galaxy containing the Solar System

The Milky Way is the galaxy that includes the Solar System, with the name describing the galaxy's appearance from Earth: a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye. The term Milky Way is a translation of the Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλακτικὸς κύκλος, meaning "milky circle". From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from within. Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610. Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe. Following the 1920 Great Debate between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Doust Curtis, observations by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Big Bang theory</span> History of a cosmological theory

The history of the Big Bang theory began with the Big Bang's development from observations and theoretical considerations. Much of the theoretical work in cosmology now involves extensions and refinements to the basic Big Bang model. The theory itself was originally formalised by Belgian Catholic priest, theoretical physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and professor of physics Georges Lemaître. Hubble's Law of the expansion of the universe provided foundational support for the theory.

<i>Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens</i> Cosmological treatise 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.

In astronomy, galactocentrism is the theory that the Milky Way Galaxy, home of Earth's Solar System, is at or near the center of the Universe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">NGC 4889</span> Supergiant elliptical galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices

NGC 4889 is an E4 supergiant elliptical galaxy. It was discovered in 1785 by the British astronomer Frederick William Herschel I, who catalogued it as a bright, nebulous patch. The brightest galaxy within the northern Coma Cluster, it is located at a median distance of 94 million parsecs from Earth. At the core of the galaxy is a supermassive black hole that heats the intracluster medium through the action of friction from infalling gases and dust. The gamma ray bursts from the galaxy extend out to several million light years of the cluster.

<i>The First Three Minutes</i> 1977 book by Steven Weinberg

The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe is a book by American physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the center of the Universe</span> Historical concept in cosmology

The center of the Universe is a concept that lacks a coherent definition in modern astronomy; according to standard cosmological theories on the shape of the universe, it has no center.


  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. Sagan, Carl & Druyan, Ann (1997). Comet. New York: Random House. p. 83. ISBN   978-0-3078-0105-0.
  6. Herschel, William (1 January 1785). "XII. On the construction of the heavens". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 75: 213–266. doi:10.1098/rstl.1785.0012. S2CID   186213203.
  7. Wright (1750), pages 83-84.
  8. 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
  9. Berendzen, Richard (1975). "Geocentric to heliocentric to galactocentric to acentric: the continuing assault to the egocentric". Vistas in Astronomy. 17 (1): 65–83. Bibcode:1975VA.....17...65B. doi:10.1016/0083-6656(75)90049-5 . Retrieved 26 August 2020.
  10. Wright (1750), page 76.
  11. Historic England. "Netheravon House (1299956)". National Heritage List for England . Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  12. Historic England. "Codger Fort (1371062)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  13. Historic England. "Stoke Park (1000129)". National Heritage List for England . Retrieved 10 September 2020.