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John Napier

John Napier

Early Life

John Napier of Merchiston was born in the year 1550. Napier rose to fame as a mathematician, physicist, astrologer and astronomer. He was also the eighth laird of Merchiston, son of Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston and Janet Bothwell. He started his formal education at the age of 13, as was the common tradition of that time. However, he soon dropped out of school and travelled to Europe, only to return to Scotland in 1571 at the age of 21. He got married to Elizabeth Stirling in 1572 and had two children with her. After the death of his first wife in 1579, Napier married Agnes Chisholm who bore him ten children.

Contribution to Mathematics

In 1614 Napier published his work ‘Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio’ which contained theory and tables of natural logarithms. Napier was the founder of logarithms and he became so after spending long hours doing lengthy calculations of astronomy. He thought there should be a better and shorter way to carry out such calculations. He worked on this idea for almost two decades before the concept of logarithms came into effect. He comprehended that all large numbers can be articulated using powers that are now known as the exponential form. This innovation paved way for advances in the fields of dynamics, astronomy, physics and even in astrology.

Napier also made improvements to the idea of the decimal fraction by starting the use of decimal points; a practice that very soon became common throughout Britain.

Interest in Theology

Napier read the Book of Revelation which he later used to make a prediction of the Apocalypse and was also deeply influenced by the orations of Christopher Goodman. Napier prophesied the end of the world to be in 1688 or 1700. In his book ‘A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John’ Napier wrote:

Justice be done against the enemies of God’s church,’ and advised the King ‘to reform the universal enormities of his country, and first to begin at his own house, family, and court.

Due to some of his religious beliefs and superstitions, many called him a magician and blamed him to be ‘in league with the powers of darkness’. He had some strange practices such as carrying a black spider in a box during travel. He also owned a rooster which he used to suspect which of his servants had been stealing. However, all these ideas were not true and had some reasonable explanations to them.

Later Life and Death

Napier also invented the ‘Napier Bones’ which were devices that could be used as calculators. They were called ‘bones’ because they were made out of ivory. He is also said to have devised some weapons such as the ‘burning mirror’ used for abolishing the enemy ships.

Before his death Napier moved back to his castle in Edinburgh where he became known as ‘Marvelous Merchiston’. Today Napier is widely recognized for his work in mathematics and astronomy. ‘Neper’ the symbol used in electrical engineering is named after him and so is the crater ‘Neper’ on the moon.

John Napier died in Edinburgh on 4th April 1617 at the age of 67.


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