Marvellous Merchiston: 400th anniversary of the death of the mathematician John Napier of Merchiston

Today is the 400th anniversary of the death of the mathematician John Napier of Merchiston, who died on the 4th April 1617.  Widely regarded as the first Scot to have made a major contribution to scientific learning, Napier is perhaps best known for inventing logarithms, bringing the decimal point into common use and for inventing a portable calculating tool – ‘Napier’s Bones’. He was respected by mathematicians and scientists worldwide, including Galileo, Kepler and Newton.  Edinburgh Napier University takes its name from him and Napier is also honoured with a crater on the moon, Neper Crater.

Napier is important to the University of St Andrews, and we honour his contribution to scientific and mathematical understanding.  Our Special Collections Reading Room is named for Napier, as is the Napier undergraduate student observatory, which houses two Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes.

Stipple engraving of John Napier by John Beugo (1759 – 1841)

John Napier was born into a wealthy family at Merchiston, Edinburgh and studied at St Andrews, enrolling in 1563.  His name appears in a list of matriculated students at the start of their studies as a member of St Salvator’s College in 1563/4.  Napier wrote of his time in St Andrews in the address “to the Godly and Christian reader” prefixed to his first publication, A Plaine Discoverie of the Whole revelation of Saint John, published in 1593, in which Napier saw the events foretold in the Revelation as occurring in chronological order and explaining key events throughout the history of Christianity from the baptism of Christ to the end of the world.

1829 engraving of Merchiston Castle, where John Napier was born in 1500.

Napier refers to his “tender yeares, and barneage in Sanct-Androis at the Schooles”, where he was first to devote his talents to the study of the Apocalypse.  The students were exercised once a week in theological studies, at which one of the masters presided.  Around 1564, Napier left to study in Europe, on the advice of his uncle, the Bishop of Orkney.  By the time he returned to Scotland in 1571, Napier was an outstanding mathematician, and was also proficient in both Latin and Greek.  He married and went to live at the family estate at Gartness, Stirlingshire. There he lived like a hermit, spending much of his time in the study of mathematics. It was rumoured that he dabbled in alchemy and necromancy – he never travelled without his black spider, which he kept in an ivory box, and he also kept a black rooster which terrified his household staff and used to catch thieves.  However, the Napier family held the hereditary role of King’s Poulterer and Napier may have kept the cockerel on a whim.

Napier’s greatest achievement is regarded as the invention of logarithms.  Napier spent over 20 years developing various methods of simplifying calculations and in 1614 Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio, his work introducing logarithms, was finally published. The impact of his invention was enormous. More rapid calculation was now available to mariners for navigation, to land and military surveyors for their plans and particularly to astronomers.  Napier was not working in academic isolation, but was part of a European network of scholars. Leading astronomers of the day, including Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), were aware of Napier’s work from 1594, and Kepler published his own work on logarithms in 1624.

Left: Napier spent over twenty years devising his theory of logarithms. He published his methods in 1614 in Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (A Description of the Wonderful Law of Logarithms) For QA33.L6C14. Right: In the first pages of Mirifici Logarithmorum, Napier established his technique of devising logarithms based upon a point moving according to two progressions.

Napier removed the long divisions and multiplications previously required to carry out arithmetical calculations. Logarithms were tables of numbers, which, when read across, simplified multiplication and division. Schools and workplaces universally used adaptations of Napier’s logarithmic tables right up to the 1970s, when electronic pocket calculators were widely adopted. He also introduced the decimal point, which was less cumbersome than the decimal fractions that had been devised by the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevinus in 1585. Then came what was to be known universally as “Napier’s Bones”, a method of calculation using small rods in a box.

A few years before his death, Napier moved back to Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, where he became known as ‘Marvellous Merchiston’. He died in 1617.

We will be marking the anniversary of Napier’s death with an exhibition on him and his achievements; please check our website for details over the next few weeks.

Gabriel Sewell
Head of Special Collections and Assistant Director of Library Services

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