- David Knight
Wright, Thomas (1711–1786), astronomer and landscape gardener, was born on 22 September 1711 at Pegg's Poole House, Byers Green, co. Durham, the third son of John and Margaret Wright. His father was a yeoman and carpenter who had a smallholding. He was educated at home, and then probably (1724?) at King James's School, Bishop Auckland, in which town Thomas Munday taught him mathematics instead of language, because of a speech impediment. From 1725 to 1729 he was apprenticed to Bryan Stobart, a clock- and watchmaker in the town. Wright's father, anxious that he was too studious, is said to have burnt his books. In 1730 he took a course probably at Dr Theophilus Pickering's Free School in Gateshead, on mathematics and navigation; that summer he went to London, where he spent time with the respected instrument makers Thomas Heath and Jonathan Sisson. He also visited Amsterdam. Having returned aged twenty to Sunderland he set up a school to teach navigation, and sold instruments.
In 1733 Daniel Newcome, rector of Sunderland, invited Wright to stay, and introduced him to Richard Lumley, of Lumley Castle, the second earl of Scarbrough. Through Lumley the Admiralty approved the publication in 1734 of Wright's Clavis pannautici, which described the pannauticon, a paper instrument dedicated to George II. A natural teacher, Wright gave lectures in London in 1734 on astronomy, and proposed lectures in Durham. He devoted time to astronomical calculations of dubious accuracy. In 1735 he was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the Royal Society. In 1742 he published his teaching aid Clavis coelestis, an enormous engraved diagram (6 ft × 4 ft) of the heavens and theories of their arrangement, with an accompanying description and discussion in quarto. In the same year he was offered the professorship of navigation at the Imperial Academy at St Petersburg, at £300 p.a., but asked for £500 and the negotiations fell through. In 1750 he published the book for which he is most famous, An Original Theory of the Universe. This has an impressive subscribers' list, including Lord Anson and the dukes of Beaufort, Bedford, Norfolk, and Portland; it is richly embellished with engravings, some spectacularly on a dark ground, and fragments of poetry. The text is rhetorical, sometimes to the point of opacity.
Wright ponders the question of why we see the Milky Way as we do, and concludes that the stars must be arranged in a disc or grindstone, or a spherical shell like the rind of an enormous orange. The sun is in the middle of this layer, so that when we look in the plane of the disc or shell we see a multitude of stars, the Milky Way, whereas at right angles to it there are very few. The grindstone plate is well known; the shell one, a vast orange with the eye of God at its centre, less so. The book did not attract the attention of astronomers, but Immanuel Kant saw—and perhaps creatively misunderstood—a review of it in a German publication.
It was only in the nineteenth century, after the work of William Herschel, that the spiral shape of the galaxy became accepted, and Wright with his grindstone was seen as a precursor. William Whiston's writings were a major influence on Wright, who once believed that each system in the universe had its own gravitational and spiritual centre, sometimes shown as divine eyes, and that stars were all equal in size (so that fainter ones were farther away) and had planets like the sun. Later in life, in Second or Singular Thoughts (not published until 1968), he changed his opinion, putting the sun in the centre of the universe, with the stars as volcanoes erupting comets downwards from a solid outer shell; the location of heaven and hell, rather than simply astronomical theory, was always important to him.
Wright visited Ireland in 1746–7, by which time Lumley's patronage had made him well known in aristocratic circles. He was living on the fringes of high society, surveying estates, planning at least fifteen gardens (in a style similar to that of William Kent) and grottoes, and giving tuition (particularly to ladies) in mathematics and astronomy. He was nearly a year in Ireland, and on his return published in 1748 Louthiana, a volume illustrated with engravings describing the antiquities and curiosities of co. Louth; a second volume was planned, but never published. In 1755 and 1758 Wright published two volumes of Universal Architecture, the first containing six designs for arbours, and the second grottoes; a third, on alcoves, was never published. He also designed buildings, such as the deer shelter in Auckland Park for the bishop of Durham, and improvements to buildings, such as pinnacles or ‘minarets’ for Durham Cathedral.
In 1755–6 Wright bought from his brother, for £20, the house in Byers Green where he had been born, rebuilt it in Roman style, and retired there in 1763 to finish his studies, now that his wealthy patrons were dying off. About 1778 Wright wrote a description of the house, which was published posthumously in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1793; the house was demolished in 1967. He erected a Gothic tower at Middleston for an observatory, but did not live to complete it.
Wright died at his home on 22 February 1786, and three days later was buried at St Andrew's churchyard, South Church, Bishop Auckland. His will was dated 12 July 1780, and his heir was his 'dear natural daughter' Elizabeth, aged twenty-two when he died. She died in 1788 and was buried beside her father; her mother's identity is not known, but she is believed to have lived with Wright and to have survived Elizabeth. Wright's life provides a good example of how a scientifically minded man could make his way in the eighteenth century through appropriate patronage and in a range of activities.
- M. Tooley, Thomas Wright of Durham: exhibition guide (1993)
- T. Wright, Clavis coelestis (1742)
- M. Hoskin, introduction, in T. Wright, An original theory or new hypothesis of the universe, 1750, ed. M. Hoskin (1971)
- T. Wright, An original theory of the universe (1750)
- T. Wright, Second or singular thoughts upon the theory of the universe, ed. M. Hoskin (1968)
- T. Wright, Arbours and grottos, ed. E. Harris (1979)
- ‘A sketch of the character of Mr Thomas Wright’, GM, 1st ser., 63 (1793), 9–12, 126–7, 213–16
- E. Hughes, ‘The early journal of Thomas Wright of Durham’, Annals of Science, 7 (1951), 1–24
- will, 13 June 1788, U. Durham L. [Elizabeth Wright]
- will, 12 July 1780, U. Durham L.
- BL, autobiography and notes relating to Druidian, Roman, Saxon, and Irish antiquities, Add. MSS 15627–15628, 33771
- Central Library, Newcastle upon Tyne
- RS, papers read to Royal Society
- Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, papers
- U. Durham L., papers relating to astronomy, cosmology, and meteorology
- Col. U., Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library
- V&A, sketchbooks [see Tooley, 7]
- T. Frye, mezzotint, 1737, BM, NPG
- line engraving, 1750, BM, NPG; repro. in ‘Sketch of the character of Mr Thomas Wright’, GM
- G. Allen and P. Fourdinier, engraving, repro. in Wright, Clavis coelestis (1742), facing title page
Wealth at Death
will, 12 July 1780, U. Durham L.
daughter's possessions under £100: will, 13 June 1788, U. Durham L.