Thomas Wright (1711-1786) was a self-made man of science. He hailed from County Durham, the son of a carpenter. Due to a childhood speech impediment, he was taught mathematics rather than language and he proved to have an aptitude for the subject. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a clock and watchmaker, after which he traveled to London and Amsterdam to learn instrument making. At age twenty, he returned north to set up a navigation school and sell instruments.
Wright published a paper instrument, the Clavis pannautici, with Admiralty approval and he offered lectures in astronomy. However, his astronomical calculations remained amateur in nature and he was rejected from fellowship in the Royal Society in 1735. His most famous work is An Original Theory of the Universe, published in 1750, which included an impressive subscribers list which included many nobles. Despite doubts about his astronomical skills, Wright was the first to suggest the spiral shape of the Milky Way galaxy in this work. It was ignored by astronomers at the time.
Wright’s other major achievements were in garden design. While in Ireland in 1746-7, he planned at least fifteen gardens for rich patrons, while also tutoring in mathematics and astronomy. Later in life he rebuilt his childhood home as a Roman villa with a Gothic tower that was to be an observatory. This was never finished, but Wright’s astronomical publications were studied long after his death in 1786.