(b Byers Green near Durham, England, 22 September 1711; d February 1786)
Thomas wright “of Durham” was the third son of Jhom wright a yeaoman andf caepenter who had a small holding near Durham. His early schooling was cut by an impediment of speech and at the age thirtee he was apprenticed to a clock maker. He used his leidure tikme to study astrono my with such alarming dedication that his father burned his books oin an effort to funstrate this enthusiasm. In 1729 wright was involed in a scandal that forced him to flee from his master and adter some advetures he reached home and was released form his apprenticeship Faliling to find employment he studied navigaytion and noted; “Reflecting almsot upon every object conseive may finde Ideas Ye deaty and Creation.”
After sampling various occupations, Wright began to teach navitgation in the seaport of Sunder land but in the spring of 1731 he was unemployed owing to the departute of the seamen. He was evidently a natural teacher adn he used his leisure toe prepare mathmatical and astromical publicatoion often in the form of well sheets or “Schemes” One such sheet coverning twenty-four square feet and accompanied by a “Key” in the form of a substantial quarto volume, Clavis coelstis appeared in 1742. wright also spent much of the 1730 surveying the estates of the aristoracy and giving private and public classes in the physical sciences. Evidently he achieved somtheing of and international reputation , of rin 1742 he was offered £300 a year to become professeor navigation at hte Imperial Academy of Science at St. Peterurg. His journal notes that “His proposals of £500 were sent to Russia,” but nothiung came of these negotiations.
In 1746 Wight went to Ireland for several months to assemble drawings of antiquiites for his most successful work Louthiana (A sequel to Louthiana and a volume on the antiquities of England his most signgicantwork An Original Theoru of New Hypothesis of the Universe By 1755 when his Universla Arvhiteture appeared his thoughts were turning again to his birthplace perhaps because his noble patrons were beginning to die off. The following year ge laid the founddation of a house at Byers year he laid the foundation of a house at Byers Green and in 1762 retired there, to “Prosicure my Studues” He died there in 1786 ummarried but survived by a daughter.
wright’s early reflections on “Ideas ofye Deaty and Creation” mark the beginning of his lifelong preoccupation with hte reconcilation of his religious and scienticfic views universe. The telescope revelated to the observer the structure of our locatlity in the uiniverse but religion alone could provide the cosmological overview. In its simplest form this overview comprised a unique divine center, the abode of god and the angel; a “Region of MOrtality,” consisting of the sun and the other stars forming a spherical assemblage surrouding the divine ceter; and the outer darknesss or other spatial realization of the punishment of the wicked.
Wright first attempt to effect this reconciliation is found in a manidcrit dated 1734 that appears to be the text of a lacture–sermon accompanying a vast visual sid now lost. In thsi lectute the divine center (the center in the moral order) ws also the gravitational centert (the center in the physical order), ad thus Wright required the sun and the other stars to be moving in orbit about thsi center in order to aviod gravitational collapse.He found evidence of this circulatoin collapse. He found evidence of this circulation among the stars in Halley’s 1718 paper o proper motions (Philosophical Tracsactions 30, 736–738) hte sighnficance of whcih had escaped more powerful minds than Wight’s.
In his efforts to bring home to his audience their precarious moral position, wright in his visual aid portrayed a cross section of creation, one that passed through the divie center and the solar system. With artistic licencse he represented the visible poetion of the universe as it actually appears to us, begining with the sun ans moon and extending to the Milky Way, Which he consdered to be us, effect of inumerable distant stars in the plane of the cross section. It was only sometime after 1742 that Wright realize that his model of hte iniverse would produce such a mikly wasy i any of the posible cross sections, wherease the visible Milky Way is unique. I 1750 An Original Thepryu met this difficulty by making is the plane tangent to the shell at the postion occupied by the solar system; be cause the sall is thin no milky effect is produced when the onserver looks either inward or outward Alternatively (but with the loss of spherical systemetry) Wright would [ermit the stars to form a flattened ring, like a large scale Sateun’s ring; the Milky Way was then int the stares lie in a plane and orbit their center as the plants orbit the sun appealed to Immanuel Kant, who not realizing that the center of Wight sustem was supernaturnal credited Wright wioth originating a disk–shaped model of hte galaxy.
I fact, An Original Theory Proposes a multiplicity of star systems each with its own supernatural center; and the punishment of the wicked is not provided for. These defects may hace prompted Wright to compose Second Thoughts whoich never reached pulished in his lifetime. I this late manuscript the universe consists of an infinite sequence of concentirc shells suroundung the divine center; Our sky is one of these soiled shells and viewed form without appears as a large version of the sun. Viewed from withing, in is studded with vlocanoes which we see as the stares ad the Milky way. A good life is rewarded by promotion tie a more speacious sphere for our next existence; an evil life is punished by demition to a more cramped spere that although nearer the divinecenter in terms of miles is still infintley many spheres away from it.
With Second Thoughts Wright achieved his reconciliation of science adn religion; hte observations had at last been fitteed into a universe that had symetry about the center and provistion for rewards adn punishments Second Thoughts with its soiled sky in which the stars are volcanoes appears retrograde to modern raders but only because we have been accustimed to juge Wright on our terms rather than his.
I. Original Works. Wright’s autobiographical notes (for the period ending 1746) are in British Museum, Add, 15627, most recently edited by Edward Hughes as “The Early Jopurnal of Thomas Wrihgt of Durham,” in Annals of Science 7, (1951), 1–24. His Principel books are Clavis coelestis (London, 1742) facs ed, by M. A. Hoskin (London, 1967) Louthiana (London 1748, 1758); An Original Theory orNew Hypothesis of the Universe (London 1750) facs, ed. by M.A, Hoskin, with transcription of Wrihgt MS “A Theory of hte Unicerse (1734) (London, 1971) Universal Architeture (London, 1755) and Second singular thoughts Upon the Theory of hte Universe edited form the MS by M. A. Hoskin (London 1968) eight vosl. Of Wright MSS are in Central Library Newcastle–upoen–Tyne, and other are in the Royal Society the Royel Atronomical Society and Durhern University the Durham collectiopm include the uniquwe copy of his The Universal Vicissitude of Seasons (1737) and other rarties A borad sheet, “The Universal vicissitude of Seasons,” is in the possession o Harrison Horblit.
II. Secondary Literature. A list of books and MSS by Wright and a bibliography of secondary literature is appended to “Thomas Wright of Durham and Immanuel Kant,” in Herbert Dingle and G.R.Martin eds., Chemistry adn Beyond A Selection from the Writigs of the Late Professor F. A. Paneth (New York 1964), 93–119; note that Pannauticon is not a book but an instrument, and that Paneth fundamentally misunder stands Wright’s cosmology. For an account of the development of Wright’s cosmology, see M. A. Hoskin, “The Cosmology of Thomas Wright of Durham,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy,1 (1970), 44–52; and the intros, to the modern eds. of his works.
Michael A. Hoskin
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Journal of Garden History, i/1 (Jan.–Mar. 1981), 55–66;
M. McCarthy (1987)
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