Born in 1550
Died on 4th of April 1617
The inventor of logarithms, John Napier, was born in Merchiston Tower, Edinburgh in 1550. His birthplace is now part of Edinburgh Napier University. As a student at St Andrew’s University Napier was drawn to the Book of Revelations and his theological studies led him to predict the end of the world in either 1688 or 1700 - happily his mathematical calculations were more accurate and objective. He developed a strongly anti-papal bent and in his book A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St John Napier boldly urged James VI, King of Scotland, to reform and repent.
Napier’s most important contributions to mathematics are contained in his book Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio, which described and tabulated the logarithmic functions. This rendered calculations easier, facilitating advances in astronomy, dynamics, physics and even astrology. Napier also invented an elegant method of multiplication using a calculating device which came to be known as Napier’s Rods or Napier’s Bones.
Napier was also known as ‘Marvellous Merchiston’ thanks in part to his reputation as a magician. His pet black rooster was regarded as his familiar spirit and according to legend once used this superstition to help him discover which of his servants was stealing from him. He shut the suspects in a room with his rooster which they were told to stroke. The bird would then tell him who was guilty. Napier had covertly coated the bird with soot and so it was the one with clean hands who gave himself away. Less perceptive in the field of agriculture he once recommended salt as a fertiliser.
John Napier died on April 4, 1617 and is buried at St Cuthbert’s church, Edinburgh. The neper, a logarithmic unit of ratio used in fields such as telecommunication, is named after him.
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