Thinking Beyond Our Galaxy 

A single round stone tower on a grassy bank

Photograph of the Westerton Tower. An observatory built by Thomas Wright that still stands today in Westerton. Credit: Bob Cotrell

Our understanding of our place in the Universe changed in the 1700s when Thomas Wright of County Durham correctly predicted that our Galaxy was not alone! He also had lots of ideas about how our own galaxy, the Milky Way, might look. He was fascinated by space and he loved to watch comets as they crossed the night sky.

Do you like drawing pictures of the world around you? Perhaps you are like Thomas Wright (1711-1786). Wright filled his notebooks with sketches. He drew what he thought the Universe looked like. He would often go out in the middle of the night and draw the comets he saw in the sky.

Thomas Wright also worked as a clockmaker and made mathematical instruments. In 1730 he ran a school for sailors in Sunderland. He taught them mathematics and navigation.

He liked to publish his ideas for others to read. He identified our galaxy, the Milky Way, as a star-packed wonder. He suggested that some of the bright points in the night sky were not stars, but were actually other galaxies.

Did you know... 

Durham’s Thomas Wright was the first person to predict there were other galaxies in the universe!

Relevance today 

Thomas Wright started building a small observatory in Westerton in County Durham in 1758. This observatory is still standing today.

Related artefacts

Three drawings showing Thomas Wright’s model of a galaxy from his ‘Original Theory’, 1750

A sketch of a sphere covered in star-like blobs. Below this is a half sphere, which contains concentric circles and a central sun-like obkect
Two sketches, one show a half sphere and one three quarters of a sphere. Both appear hollow with a central sun-like object
Two sketeches, one showing three quarters of a sphere, and the other showing seven eights of a sphere. Both are hollow with a central sun-like object.

Durham astronomer Thomas Wright was one of the first to suggest that some bright points in the night sky were not stars. He called them ‘island universes’ and believed they were distant galaxies. These drawings show Wright’s model of what he thought galaxies looked like. They have a ‘divine centre’ that he often drew with an eye, a void of nothing, surrounded by a fixed shell or layer of stars and solar systems.

Image reproduced by permission of Durham University Library.

Star map with comets drawn in red by Thomas Wright

An intricate star map with sketches of the images of the constellations on top, and also red streaks (paths of comets).

Two drawings of a comet by Thomas Wright, one from his garden in Byers Green and one from High Park

A rough pencil sketch of trees, grass and a stone arch. In the sky there is a comet. There are hand-written notes (hard to read) at the bottom.

Drawing captioned: "September ye 12th 1769. View of a Comet as it appeard to Mr Wright in his garden at Biersgreen about half an Hour after three a clock in ye morning ..."

A rough pencil sketch of a park with trees and a lake. A comet is seen in the sky and reflected in the lake. Rough writing (hard to read) is found at the bottom.

Drawing captioned: "View of the Comet in 1744 as it appeard in ye Evening over ye Lake in High Park for some time in January and in ye Constelation Regulus"

You don’t need expensive equipment to go out and record what you see in the sky. As well as thinking about the universe, Thomas Wright had an interest in comets. He liked to record the ones he saw by drawing them. He also drew this map of the night sky that included several comets.

Comets are icy objects that orbit the sun. Dust and ice make up their long tails. The tails can only be seen when the comet passes close to the Sun.

Image reproduced by permission of Durham University Library.