Thomas Wright's An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750)

“I own I can never look upon the Stars without wondering why the whole World does not become Astronomers”. So admits Thomas Wright in An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750). Written in the form of nine letters to a nameless friend, the book puts forwards “my Theory of the Universe, and the Ideas I have form’d of the known Creation.”

Although he was influenced by Comenius' pansophic theories of universal knowledge from a century earlier, Wright's theory of the heavens was strikingly original. Over the course of his discussions on the views of previous authors (illustrated in plate iii), the position and movement of bodies in the sky, and the implications for time, eternity and the soul, he was “the first to correctly postulate that clusters of starry nebulae were in fact galaxies too distant for us to discern clearly, and that the luminous blur of the Milky Way was simply an optical effect caused by our immersion in it”, as David Braffman explains in the Getty Research Institute blog: see Wright's Plate XXIX for his depiction.

This insight into the Via Lactea pre-dated Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel’s work in astronomy by two decades, and was an acknowledged influence on Immanuel Kant’s 1755 Universal natural history and theory of the heavens. It took Edwin Hubble’s photographs in the 1920s to offer proof of the nature of the Milky Way, and the telescope named after him continues to expand our fields of knowledge by use of images.

Born in County Durham in 1711, Wright became, to use the title of Judy Preston's contextualising paper in Garden History in 2010, a polymath in Arcadia, extremely well-versed in mathematics, sciences, and the arts, as well as an eminent garden designer. He has only one other published book, an introduction to the antiquities of County Louth, Ireland, but his diary, and other papers, are in the Special Collections and Archives at Durham University, where an exhaustive description of his life and works can be found. Not all his ideas were as well-founded as his work on the Via Lactea; in a manuscript sequel to An Original Theory, he proposed “that the sky was solid and studied with inward-pointing volcanoes down whose shafts we see the stars”.

The thirty-two “graven and mezzotinto” plates found at the end of An Original Theory — printed “by the Best Masters” and likely based on Wright's drawings — reveal his remarkable range of vision. The most simple images show what Wright has observed in the night sky (Plate XVI), then diagrams of how these constellations (Plate XIX) and comets (Plate IX) are arranged and understood. From his empirical observations, and deductions about what this must mean for the relative positions and orbits (Plate XXII), Wright develops a much more ambitious proposal as to the construction of the universe. Plate XXVII depicts a globe within a globe, part of his hypothesis on the patterns and rules followed by bodies in space. It’s a hypothesis which culminates in his globular visions of the last two plates, which show full and section views of “the Object of that incomprehensible Being, which alone and in himself comprehends and constitutes supreme Perfection”. The extraordinary, endless eyes of the final plate (XXXII) give a good sense of Wright’s cosmic conclusion, that just as the solar system as we observe it is full of complex bodies, so too, but on a larger, parallel scale is the wider universe: an “unlimited plenum of creations”, all centred on the law and vision of God.

After a life of scientific discovery, adventure, and a career as a garden designer, Thomas Wright died in 1786. His observations and imaginations of his place in the greater scheme of things appear to have reconciled him to all “those little Difficulties incident to human Nature”. Presented with the immensity, and the visual richness, of space and the heavens, he concluded, “But here, even in this World, are Joys which our Ideas of Heaven can scarce exceed, and if Imperfection appear thus lovely, what must Perfection be”.

Featured below, all thirty-two of the illustrative plates, with their relevant description taken from the main body of the book. We've also made a few prints of the images which you can see in our shop here.

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