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Napier was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, into the Scottish nobility. Since
his father was Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston Castle, and his mother,
Janet Bothwell, was the daughter of a member of Parliament, John Napier
became the laird (property owner) of Merchiston. 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.
Napier turned 21 and returned to Scotland. The following year he married
Elizabeth Stirling, daughter of Scottish mathematician James Stirling
(1692-1770), and bat a castle at Gartnes 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
Napier's father had been deeply interested and involved in religious matters,
and Napier himself was no different. Because of his inherited wealth,
he needed no professional position. He kept himself very busy by being
involved with the political and religious controversies of his time. For
the most part, religion and politics in Scotland at this time pitted Catholics
against Protestants. Napier was anti-Catholic, as evidenced by his 1593
book against Catholicism and the papacy (office of the pope) entitled
A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John. This attack was
so popular that it was translated into several languages and saw many
editions. Napier always felt that if he attained any fame at all in his
life, it would be because of that book.
As a person of high energy and curiosity, Napier paid much attention to
his landholdings and tried to improve the workings of his estate. Around
the Edinburgh area, he became widely known as "Marvellous Merchiston"
for the many ingenious mechanisms he built to improve his crops and cattle.
He experimented with fertilizers to enrich his land, invented an apparatus
to remove water from flooded coal pits, and bat devices to better survey
and measure land. He also wrote about plans to bad elaborate devices that
would deflect any Spanish invasion of the British Isles. In addition,
he described military devices that were similar to today's submarine,
machine gun, and army tank. He never attempted to build any of the military
Napier had a great interest in astronomy. which led to his contribution
to mathematics. John was not just a star gazer; he was involved in research
that required lengthy and time consuming calculations of very large numbers.
Once the idea came to him that there might be a better and simpler way
to perform large number calculations, Napier focused on the issue and
spent twenty years perfecting his idea. The result of this work is what
we now call logarithms.
Napier realized that all numbers can be expressed in what is now called
exponential form, meaning 8 can be written as 23, 16 as 24
and so on. What make logarithms so useful is the fact that the operations
of multiplication and division are reduced to simple addition and subtraction.
When very large numbers are expressed as a logarithm, multiplication becomes
the addition of exponents.
Example: 102 times 105 can be calculated as 10 2+5
or 107. This is easier than 100 times 100,000.
made this discovery known in 1614 in his book called 'A Description of
the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms.' The author briefly described and explained
his inventions, but more importantly, he included his first set of logarithmic
tables. These tables were a stroke of genius and a big hit with astronomers
and scientists. It is said that English mathematician Henry Briggs was
so influenced by the tables that he traveled to Scotland just to meet
the inventor . This lead to a cooperative improvement including the development
of Base 10.
Napier was also responsible for advancing the notion of the decimal fraction
by introducing the use of the decimal point. His suggestion that a simple
point could be used to separate whole number and fractional parts of a
number soon became accepted practice throughout Great Britain.
- A Plaine
Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John. (1593)
- A Description
of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms. (1614)
of Logarithms ( 1619)
there is nothing that is so troublesome to mathematical practice....
than the multiplications, divisions, square and cubical extractions
of great numbers, which besides the tedious expense of time are... subject
to many slippery errors, I began therefore to consider [how] I might
remove those hindrances."
from A Description of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms.
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