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John Napier (1550-1617)


John Napier was born was born in Merchiston Tower, Edinburgh, in 1550, the son of Archibald Napier, the Master of the Mint in Scotland.  Young John Napier entered St-Salvator's College, University of St-Andrews, at the age of 13.  It is rumored that during his youth, Napier also studied in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy.  He only returned to Scotland in 1571, to marry his first wife, Elizabeth, with who he had a son.  Elizabeth died that same year, and in 1572, Napier married his second wife, Agnes, with whom he had five sons and five daughters. 

Most of the Napier family estates had been left into John's care, and he built himself a castle, in which he and his family took up residence.  Napier spent much of his time tending to his estates, inventing new ways to fertilize the soil in order to grow more bountiful crops, and maintaining greener grass.  Napier, also referred to as the "Marvelous Merchiston", may have come from a wealthy family, but he was a man of many talents, decent values and high intelligence who truly deserved all he was awarded.  18th century philosopher David Hume later wrote about Napier, saying he was a "person to whom the title of a great man is more justly due than to any other whom his country ever produced".

Like many of history's great thinkers, Napier was very interested in religion, on both scientific and philosophical terms.  An fanatic of theology since his university days, John Napier, a protestant like his father before him, had been born in a time when Scotland was divided in two by a religious conflict between Roman Catholism (enforced by Mary Queen of Scots) and Protestantism.  In 1593, Napier published "A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John", a work in which he claimed his calculations based on the Book of Revelations revealed the to be the "Antichrist", going as far as predicting the coming of the Apocalypse, some 100 years in the future.

Fortunately for us, Napier's "hobby", yielded much more accurate results.  What little time was left to the Theologian was spent studying mathematics, and developing new tools and mnemonic formulas to make the process of calculation easier.  Perhaps it was Napier's lack of free time which led to his invention of Napier's rods, but there is no doubt his greatest achievement was the publication of A Description of the Admirable Table of Logarithms in 1614 (Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio).  While logarithms had already been invented by Swiss mathematician Jost Burgi, it was Napier's work which brought them into the public eye.  Napier also claimed he had been contemplating logarithms as early as 1694, and many of the era's most important scientists, including astronomer Tycho Brahe were waiting in anticipation for his work to be published.



John Napier's works are believed to be in the public domain, and have been transcribed from an original translation by Edward Wright (1616).
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Last modified: October 07, 2002