Thomas Wrightiana

Scope and Content

Durham University Library holds possibly the most extensive collection in existence of manuscripts of Thomas Wright and publications by and about him. The University has also built up this background collection of 'Wrightiana' over many years, containing photographs, slides, researchers' working notes and correspondence, texts of lectures and talks, etc. giving information about Wright's life and work, places associated with him, portraits of him, related manuscripts and publications in other repositories, events commemorating him, and so on.

Much of the collection was accumulated through the researches of Professor F.A. Paneth on Wright. The collection covers all aspects of Wright’s career but there is much more material on his astronomical work than on his architectural and landscape gardening activities or his antiquarian interests.

Administrative / Biographical History

Thomas Wright was born at Byers Green, Co. Durham. In 1730, at the age of 20, he set up his own school in Sunderland, where he taught mathematics and navigation, and sold mathematical instruments. Through the good offices of the Earl of Scarbrough, his instrument the pannauticon was approved by the Lords of the Admiralty, and the central period of his career was spent in London and in the country houses of aristocratic patrons. A polymath, Wright achieved distinction not only as a mathematician, astronomer and instrument maker, but also as an architect and garden designer, and antiquary. In his best known and most influential work, An original theory or new hypothesis of the universe (London, 1750), Wright 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, an idea which was taken up, transformed and greatly elaborated by Immanuel Kant, after reading an abstract of Wright's work in a Hamburg periodical. Largely self-taught, Wright never quite succeeded in breaking into the scientific establishment, but his career illustrates how an able man with scientific interests could make his way by lecturing, teaching the children of his patrons, and furthering their architectural and gardening projects. In retirement he returned to Byers Green to prosecute his studies, and built a small observatory tower at Westerton nearby.


The collection is grouped in 7 sections:

  • A. Copies of manuscripts, manuscript notes in books, and printed texts by Wright.
  • B. Notes by Professor F.A. Paneth and others on manuscripts and printed texts by Wright.
  • C. Material relating to biography and identity of Wright.
  • D. Iconographic material relating to manuscripts, printed texts, biography and thought of Wright.
  • E. Miscellaneous material relating to Wright.
  • F. Correspondence about Wright, largely with staff of Durham University Library.
  • G. Miscellaneous material relating to astronomy, Kant and Professor F.A. Paneth.

Access Information

Open for consultation.

Acquisition Information

Acquired over many years from various donors.

Other Finding Aids

Online catalogue, available at online catalogue

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Sub-Librarian, Special Collections (e-mail and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. The Library will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.


Additions continue to be made to the collection.

Related Material

Thomas Wright Manuscripts.

Most of Wright's publications, some with manuscript annotations by him, and a wide range of publications about him can be found in the University Library's printed collections. The University Library also holds microfilm (X M/film Misc.25) of 8 volumes of Wright MSS in Newcastle upon Tyne Central Library.


Tooley, M.J., Thomas Wright of Durham 1711-1786 [exhibition guide, with bibliography] (Durham, 1993)