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Napier [Neper and numerous other forms], John

1. Dates
Born: Edinburgh, 1550
Died: Edinburgh, 4 April 1617
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 67
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry, Government Official
Sir Archibald Napier was the 7th Laird of Merchiston. Gridgeman calls the family "marginal aristocracy," Jourdain is insistent that the family was not aristocratic. Gentry seem the correct category. The family had made its way up over the space of two centuries by service to the King. Sir Archibald, after a number of other offices, eventually became Master of the Mint.
It seems clear that the father was wealthy. Napier inherited from him an estate sufficient to live well on.
3. Nationality
Birth: Scottish
Career: Scottish
Death: Scottish. 4. Education, SAn St. Salvator's College, St. Andrews, 1563. He was apparent-ly there only for a year and then went to the continent to study. Absolutely no evidence exists as to where he studied, but he returned home by 1571 as a scholar competent in Greek. Non-European known B.A. A degree was not relevant to him.
4. Education
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist
Napier was an ardent Presbyterian who composed an influential interpretation of Revelation to demonstrate that the Catholic Church was the Beast.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics
Although the interpretation of Revelation was Napier's major intellectual endeavor, he was interested in mathematics from an early age. An early MS, published only in 1835, De arte logistica, would have contributed seriously to algebra had it been published at the time.
Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio, 1614, and Mirifici logarithmorum canonis constructio, 1619, set forth the concept of logarithms and published the first table of them. In explaining logs, he also systematized spherical trigonometry. Napier made systematic use of decimal notation and was an important agent in its acceptance.
Rabdologiae, 1617, includes a number of calculating devices, including "Napier's bones," devices to aid multiplication (but not by logarithmic scales). Book II offers a practical treatment of mensuration rules.
Napier was apparently reputed to be a magician in his own age, but the only evidence of participation in the occult sciences (and the evidence is highly dubious) is a contract of 1594 with Robert Logan to search (possibly by occult methods) for treasure said to be in Logan's castle. I am not listing occult philosophy.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
A royal charter granted to him the land of Edenbellie, Gartness, in Sterlingshire, 1573. He had other lands as well.
He inherited the estate of Merchiston from his father, 1608.
Napier did fulfill some public offices, such as price controller of boots and shoes in Edinburgh. It is not clear that he received compensation for this.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Government Official
A royal charter granted him lands. I would like to know more about the details, but it does have the scent of patronage. This is the sort of patronage I would expect for a well endowed laird.
He dedicated his interpretation of the book of Revelation, 1596, to James VI (later James I of England). However, I am uncertain about this. The dedication was an exhortation to James, whom he deemed too favorable to Papists, and it does not sound quite like the prose of a client..
He dedicated the Descriptio, 1614, to Prince Charles (later Charles I).
He dedicated the Rabdologiae, 1617, to Chancellor Seton, Earl of Dunfermline.
Adam Bothwell, bishop of Orkney, encouraged him to study abroad, and assigned the tithes of Merchiston to his father and him for 19 years. Napier's mother was a Bothwell, and while this balances on the ambiguous boundary, I am not counting it was patronage.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Hydraulics, Agriculture, Applied Mathematics, Instruments, Cartography
The invention of a hydraulic screw and revolving axle to keep the level of water down in coal pits.
Napier worked at improving his crops and cattle. He experimented with the use of manures and discovered the value of common salt (sic) for this purpose.
Napier invented logarithms, a great aid to calculators, and in connection with logarithms, he invented his bones as a calculating instruments. He also described a calculating machine.
Rabdologiae included rules of mensuration, and he was consulted on the proper methods of measuring lands.
Napier invented (or better, proposed) a number of military devices--burning mirrors to set enemy (read Spanish, Catholic) ships afire, a special piece of artillery to destroy everything within a radius of four miles, an armored "chariot" (a sort of early modern tank), and a submarine. I have decided not to list them; they smack of the fantastic rather than of practical military engineering.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Friendship with Henry Briggs. Connection with John Craig.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 14, 59-65. Mark Napier, Memoirs of John Napier of Merchiston, (Edinburgh, 1834). P. Hume Brown, "John Napier of Merchiston," in C.G .Knott, ed., Napier Tercentenary Memorial Volume, (London, 1915), pp. 33- 51.
  2. Philip E.B. Jourdain, "John Napier and the Tercentenary of the Invention of Logarithms," The Open Court, 28 (1914), 513-20.
  3. W.R. Thomas, "John Napier," Mathematical Gazette, 19 (1935), 192- 205.
  4. N.T. Gridgeman, "John Napier and the History of Logarithms," Scripta mathematica, 29 (1973), 49-65.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Ernest W. Hobson, John Napier and the Invention of Logarithms, (Cambridge, 1914).
  2. John Napier, Rabdology, tr. William Frank Richardson, intro.
  3. Robin E. Rider, (Cambridge, MA, 1990).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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