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Thomas Wright was born in the little village of Byers Green, near Spennymoor, in 1711. He disappeared for the duration of his working, adult life, before returning to the area in his retirement, where he set about building the still-existing Westerton Tower. He died before it was completed, meaning that his planned observatory became little more than a folly adorning the Durham landscape.
Wright had his fingers in a lot of pies. He was schooled in Bishop Auckland, before being apprenticed to a clockmaker in the town. In his working life he began as a teacher of mathematics and navigation at his own school in Sunderland in the 1730s, before moving to London to work for several wealthy patrons. He dabbled in garden design, was a bit of an architect and designed scientific instruments – famously building a huge working model of the solar system (an orrery) for one of his clients. Indeed, Wright is best remembered as an astronomer.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, it was Thomas Wright who first speculated that the Milky Way was most likely a flat disc of stars, and that the blurry blobs of light we see in the night sky (nebulae) are actually distant galaxies. These ideas are often attributed to the brilliant German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, but they first appeared in Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe in 1750. He also helpfully (and correctly) postulated Earth and humankind’s relative insignificance in the ‘grand scheme of things’, and was the first man to coin the phrase ‘galaxy’ to describe a large group of stars.
Retirement sent him back to his homeland in Co.Durham, where he set about work on his pretty little observatory (though construction may have begun earlier in his lifetime). His death in 1786 preceded the tower’s completion, so his planned observatory rather unfairly became a mere folly. It has been used, periodically, as a reading room and more recently as council offices. A commemorative plaque was placed there by Durham University in 1950 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of his famous treatise.