- For other people with the same name, see John Napier .
John Napier of Merchistoun
(1550 – 4 April 1617) - also signed as Neper, Nepair - named
Marvellous Merchiston, was a Scottish mathematician, physicist, astronomer/astrologer
and 8th Laird of Merchistoun, son of Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston.
He is most remembered as the inventor of
logarithms and
Napier's
bones, and for popularizing the use of the
decimal point.
Napier's birth place, Merchiston
Tower, Edinburgh, Scotland, is now part of Edinburgh Napier
University. After dying of gout,
Napier was buried in St Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh.
Advances in mathematics
His work,
Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (1614)
contained fifty-seven pages of explanatory matter and ninety pages
of tables of
natural logarithms.
The book also has an excellent discussion of theorems in Spherical
Trigonometry, usually known as Napier's Rules of Circular Parts.
His
invention of logarithms was quickly taken up at Gresham College, and the leading English mathematician Henry Briggs arranged to visit
Napier in 1615. Among the matters they discussed was a
re-scaling of Napier's logarithms, in which the presence of the
mathematical constant
e (more accurately, the
integer part of
e times a large power
of 10) was a practical difficulty. Napier delegated to Briggs the
computation of a revised table. The computational advance available
via logarithms, the converse of powered numbers or
exponential notation, was such that it
made calculations by hand much quicker. The way was opened to later
scientific advances, in
astronomy,
dynamics,
physics; and also in
astrology.
Napier made further contributions. He improved
Simon Stevin's decimal notation. Arab
lattice multiplication, used by
Fibonacci, was made more convenient by his
introduction of
Napier's bones, a
multiplication tool using a set of numbered rods. He may have
worked largely in isolation, but he had contact with
Tycho Brahe who corresponded with his friend
John Craig. Craig certainly
announced the discovery of logarithms to Brahe in the 1590s (the
name itself came later); there is a story from
Anthony à Wood, perhaps not well
substantiated, that Napier had a hint from Craig that
Longomontanus, Brahe's follower, was working
in a similar direction.
Theology
Napier had a strong interest in the
Book of Revelation, from his student
days at
St Salvator's
College, St Andrews. Under the influence of the sermons of
Christopher Goodman, he
developed a strongly anti-papal reading. He further used the
Book of Revelation for
chronography, to predict the
Apocalypse, in
A Plaine Discovery of the
Whole Revelation of St. John, which he regarded as his most
important work. Napier believed that the end of the world would
occur in 1688 or 1700.
In his dedication of the
Plaine Discovery to
James VI, dated 29 Jan. 1593-4, Napier urged the
king to see "that justice be done against the enemies of God's
church," and counselled him "to reform the universal enormities of
his country, and first to begin at his own house, family, and
court." The volume includes nine pages of English verse by himself.
It met with success at home and abroad. In 1600
Michiel Panneel produced a Dutch
translation, and this reached a second edition in 1607.
In 1602
the work appeared at La
Rochelle in a French
version, by Georges Thomson, revised
by Napier, and that also went through several editions (1603, 1605,
and 1607). A new edition of the English original was called
for in 1611, when it was revised and corrected by the author, and
enlarged by the addition of
A Resolution of certain Doubts
proponed by well-affected brethren;'this appeared
simultaneously at Edinburgh and London. The author stated that he
still intended to publish a Latin edition, but it never appeared.
A German
translation, by Leo de Dromna, of the
first part of Napier's work appeared at Gera in 1611, and of the
whole by Wolfgang Meyer at Frankfurt-am-Main, in 1615.
Personal Life
His father was Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston Castle, and his
mother, Janet Bothwell, was the daughter of a member of Parliament.
Napier's father was only 16 when his son, John, was born. As was
the practice for members of nobility, Napier did not enter school
until he was 13. He did not stay in school very long, however. It
is believed that he dropped out and traveled in Europe to continue
his studies. Little is known about these years, where or when he
may have studied.
In 1571, Napier turned 21 and returned to Scotland. The following
year he married Elizabeth Stirling, daughter of James Stirling, 4th
Laird of Keir and of Cadder , and bought a castle at Gartness in
1574. The couple had two children before Elizabeth died in 1579.
Napier later married Agnes Chisholm, with whom he had ten children.
On the death of his father in 1608, Napier and his family moved
into Merchiston Castle, where he lived the rest of his life.
Astrology and the occult
John Napier
In addition to his mathematical and religious interests, Napier was
commonly believed to be a magician, and is thought to have dabbled
in
alchemy and
necromancy. It was said that he would travel
about with a black spider in a small box, and that his black
rooster was his
familiar spirit.
Napier used this rooster to find out which of his servants had been
stealing from his home. He would shut the suspects one at a time in
a room with the bird, telling them to stroke it. The rooster would
then tell Napier which of them was guilty. Actually, what would
happen is that he would secretly coat the rooster with soot.
Servants who were innocent would have no qualms about stroking it
but the guilty one would only pretend he had, and when Napier
examined their hands, the one with the clean hands was
guilty.
Another occasion which may have contributed to his reputation as a
sorcerer involved a neighbour whose pigeons were found to be eating
Napier's grain. Napier warned him that from now on he intended to
keep any pigeons found on his property. The next day, it is said,
Napier was witnessed surrounded by unusually passive pigeons which
he was scooping up and putting in a sack. The previous night he had
soaked some peas in brandy, and then sown them. Come morning, the
pigeons had gobbled them up, rendering themselves incapable of
flight.
A contract still exists for a
treasure
hunt, made between John Napier and one Robert Logan of
Restalrig.
Napier was to search Fast Castle for treasure allegedly hidden there, wherein it is
stated that Napier should
"...do his utmost diligence to search and
seek out, and by all craft and ingine to find out the same, or make
it sure that no such thing has been
there."
Eponyms
An alternative unit to the
decibel used in
electrical engineering, the
neper, is named after John Napier, as is
Edinburgh Napier
University in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The crater
Neper on the Moon
is named after him.
List of works
See also
Notes
- :s:Napier, John
- :s:Craig, John
- Biography of John Napier from history of
computers.com
- Scotsman article about John
Napier
- Scotsman article specifically about
Napier's interest in the occult
- John Napier and the Devil
- A Biography of John Napier
- Neper Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature -
USGS Astrogeology
References