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Thomas Wright (astronomer)

Thomas Wright in 1737
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.


Early lifeEdit

Wright was born at Byers Green in County Durham. In 1730, he set up a school in Sunderland, where he taught mathematics and navigation. He later moved 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.

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."[1]

His idea was taken up and elaborated by Immanuel Kant in his Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven. Another of his ideas, which is also often attributed to Kant, was that many faint nebulae are actually incredibly distant galaxies. Wright wrote:[2][3]

...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:[4][5]

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 designEdit

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.

He designed the folly or eye-catcher known as Codgers Fort at Rothley, Northumberland, part of the Wallington Hall estate.

He was also credited with expanding the Grand Orrery 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.


  1. ^ 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.… "
  2. ^ Wright (1750), pages 83-84.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Wright (1750), page 76.
  5. ^ Rees, M. (12 July 2003). "Our greatest quest". New Scientist: 30–34. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  Quotes Wright's book An Original Theory of (sic) New Hypothesis of the Universe


  • Eileen Harris, ed., Arbours and Grottos. A facsimile of the two parts of Universal Architecture, (1755 and 1758), with a catalogue of Wright's works in architecture and garden design, London: Scolar Press, 1979.
  • McCarthy, M. (1981). "Thomas Wright's 'Designs for temples' and related drawings for garden buildings". The Journal of Garden History. 1: 55. doi:10.1080/01445170.1981.10412363. 
  • McCarthy, M. (1981). "Thomas Wright's designs for Gothic garden buildings". The Journal of Garden History. 1 (3): 239. doi:10.1080/01445170.1981.10412374. 
  • Preston, Judy (2011). Polymath in Arcadia, Judy Preston.pdf "A Polymath in Arcadia:Thomas Wright(1711–1786)" Check |url= value (help) (PDF). Garden History. 38 (2): 159–176. JSTOR 41411752. 
  • Eileen Harris, 'The Print That Never Was: Thomas Wright's Unpublished Edinburgh Almanack for 1733', Print Quarterly, vol. XXIX, no. 3, September 2012, pp. 280–288.

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