Thomas Wright - Scientist of the Day
Thomas Wright, an English teacher and astronomer, was born on Sep. 22, 1711. Wright was a curious duck, largely self-taught, of a mystical bent, and not by any stretch brilliant, yet capable of penetrating insights about the heavens that completely escaped his more illustrious contemporaries. He is most famous for being the first to argue that the Milky Way, that cloudy band of innumerable stars that runs entirely around the sky, is a key to determining the structure of our Galaxy. Wright did not take the next step, which was to deduce that the Galaxy must be a large thin disk of stars—that conclusion was reached by Immanuel Kant, with Wright as a guide. But Wright was the first to understand that the Milky Way is the vital clue that allows us to determine the nature of stellar systems.
Wright’s work on the Milky Way was included in a beautiful book, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750). In addition to a striking mezzotint that depicts stars (including our sun) with planetary systems (first image above), Wright also depicted the known planets and moons of the solar system in 1750 (second image above), and gave us a diagram of the solar system that demonstrates how much bigger the solar system had become, with the inclusion of the elliptical orbits of comets (third image above).
An Original Theory of the Universe was on display in our 2010 exhibition, Thinking Outside the Sphere.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City