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John NapierJohn Napier

[nA' per] inventor of logarithms

John Napier was born in Merchiston near Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1550, and was the eighth Napier of Merchiston. He graduated from St. Salvator's College at St. Andrews in 1563, then studied in Paris, Italy and Germany.

In 1593, Napier was a member of a committee nominated by a convention of delegates to make representations to the king at Jedburgh considering the safety of the Church. That same year he published Plaine Discovery of the whole Revelation of Saint John: set down in two treaties, the first important Scottish work on the interpretation of scriptures.

Napier spent the next several years inventing secret instruments of war. The Bacon Collection at Lambreth Palace includes a document, dated June 7, 1596, and signed by Napier, giving a list of his inventions for the defense of the country against the anticipated invasion by Philip of Spain.

Napier's most famous mathematical work, Canonis Descriptio, appeared in 1614. It was this work that embodied his invention of logarithms. It contained the first table of logarithms, as well as the first use of the word "logarithm." However, it includes no explanation of the manner in which he had calculated his table. That explanation was subsequently published in 1619 by Robert Napier, son of John Napier, under the title Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Constructio.

In 1617, Napier published Rabdologia. This work explains how to use a series of numerating rods for the performance of multiplications and divisions. These rods are now commonly known as Napier's Bones. It also includes a second method, which he calls the "Promptuarium Multiplicationis," which involves the use of little plates of metal in a box. In an appendix he gives a third method, "local arithmetic," which is performed on a chess board. The Rabdologia also contains a chronological listing of his inventions and discoveries.

Napier died on April 4, 1617.

Napier's Bones

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This page was last updated on 03/09/2017.