Thomas Wright Manuscripts

Scope and Content

This collection largely consists of cosmological, astronomical and meteorological drafts and notes, most, but not all of which are in the hand of Wright himself. They include a sequel to his Original theory, or new hypothesis of the universe , in which he repudiated his earlier explanation of the stars, and instead placed the sun at the centre of visible creation; (an edition of this sequel was publishedby Dr Michael Hoskin in 1968). The collection also includes works on comets, longitude, and the divine nature of visible creation. Among the meteorological material are weather diaries kept by Wright at Westerton, Hartlepool, and Bishop Auckland,Co. Durham, and tables of weather records for the Coventry area, 1724-1733, possibly based on observations of Henry Beighton. Much of the collection dates from the period of Wright's retirement to Byers Green, from 1755, after twenty years on thefringes of high society, surveying estates, giving lessons in mathematics and the physical sciences to noble ladies, and publishing works on astronomy, architecture and antiquities. There is no material in this collection on Wright’s architecturaland garden designs.

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 ofScarbrough, 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 amathematician, 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, anidea 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, buthis 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 prosecutehis studies, and built a small observatory tower at Westerton nearby.


Wright himself grouped and regrouped and numbered and renumbered many of these papers, and in some cases supplied them with title-pages with a view to publication. When acquired by Dawsons in 1966 they were in chaotic disorder. They were sortedfor Dawsons by Dr. Michael Hoskin, and his arrangement has been retained with only minor modifications to associate related papers which had become separated. Other such relationships may still remain unidentified, and at some points the order inwhich the sheets have been numbered is unavoidably arbitrary, given the nature of the material.

Access Information

Open for consultation.

Acquisition Information

Purchased, 1966, with assistance from the Purchase Grant Fund, from Dawsons, Pall Mall, London, who had bought the papers at Sotheby's sale on 19 July 1966. Additional material has been added to this, with the provenance recorded in thecatalogue.

Other Finding Aids

Online catalogue, available at online catalogue

Separated Material

London, British Library Add. MSS 4432-33, 4436-37 passim (meteorological diary and scientific observations of Henry Beighton).

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 assistwhere possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Related Material

The Library holds most of Wright's publications, some with manuscript annotations by him, and has microfilm (X M/film Misc. 25) of 8 volumes of Wright MSS in Newcastle upon Tyne Central Library, which include material related to some of thepieces in this collection. The University Library also has extensive holdings of publications about Wright, and a collection of Wrightiana (cuttings, photocopies, photographs, slides etc.) providing backgroundinformation on his life and works, for which an online catalogue is available.

Routh 52.A.17/5: manuscript genealogy of the Dukes of Beaufort, written by Thomas Wright.


Tooley, M.J., Thomas Wright of Durham 1711-1786 [Exhibition catalogue with bibliography] (Durham, 1993)  Wright, Thomas, Second or singular thoughts upon the theory of the universe , edited from the manuscript by M.A. Hoskin (London, 1968)