John Napier

John Napier

[ney-pee-er or, for 1–3, nuh-peer]
Napier, John, 1550-1617, Scottish mathematician. He invented logarithms and wrote Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio (1614), containing the first logarithmic table and the first use of the word logarithm. His Rabdologiae (1617) gives various methods for abbreviating arithmetical calculations. One method of multiplication uses a system of numbered rods called Napier's rods, or Napier's bones; this was a major improvement on the ancient system of counters then in use. In 1619, after Napier's death, his Mirifici logarithmorum canonis constructio, which gave the method of construction of his logarithms, was published by his son Robert and edited by Henry Briggs. Napier introduced the decimal point in writing numbers. Napier was also known as an outspoken exponent of the Protestant cause. His religious writings include A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation (1593), the earliest Scottish interpretation of the scriptures.
Turner, John Napier, 1929-, Canadian prime minister (1984). Born in England, he emigrated to Ontario with his Canadian-born mother in 1932. Trained as a lawyer, he entered the House of Commons as a Liberal in 1962. He subsequently served as head of several ministries, notably as minister of justice (1968-72) and minister of finance (1972-75). Upon the resignation of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1984, he became leader of the Liberal party. He became prime minister on June 30 and dissolved Parliament shortly thereafter. In the September elections the Liberal party was soundly defeated. Turner remained Liberal party leader until 1990.

For other people with the same name, see John Napier (disambiguation).

John Napier of Merchistoun (1550 – 4 April 1617) - also signed as Neper, Nepair - named Marvellous Merchiston, was a Scottish mathematician, physicist, astronomer/astrologer and 8th Laird of Merchistoun, son of Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston. He is most remembered as the inventor of logarithms and Napier's bones, and for popularizing the use of the decimal point. Napier's birth place, Merchiston Tower, Edinburgh, Scotland, is now part of Napier University. After dying of gout, Napier was buried in St Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh.

Advances in mathematics

Napier is relatively most-known inside mathematical and engineering circles, where he made what is undoubtedly a key advance in the use of mathematics. Logarithms are the opposite of powered numbers, and made calculations by hand much easier and quicker, and thereby opened the way to many later scientific advances. His work, Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio, contained fifty-seven pages of explanatory matter and ninety pages of tables, which facilitated the furtherment of astronomy, dynamics, physics, and astrology. He also improved Simon Stevin's decimal notation, and Arab lattice multiplication, used by Fibonacci, writing Napier's bones, a multiplication tool using a set of numbered rods.

Napier used some of his mathematical talents for theology, as he used the Book of Revelation to predict the Apocalypse, in A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John, which he regarded as his most important work. Napier believed that the end of the world would occur in 1688 or 1700. He is also sometimes claimed to have been a necromancer; however, it was common for scientifically talented people of the period to be accused of such things without basis.

Astrology and the Occult

In addition to his mathematical and religious interests, Napier was commonly believed to be a magician, and is thought to have dabbled in alchemy and necromancy. It was said that he would travel about with a black spider in a small box, and that his black rooster was his familiar spirit.

Napier used this rooster to find out which of his servants had been stealing from his home. He would shut the suspects one at a time in a room with the bird, telling them to stroke it. The rooster would then tell Napier which of them was guilty. Actually, what would happen is that he would secretly coat the rooster with soot. Servants who were innocent would have no qualms about stroking it but the guilty one would only pretend he had, and when Napier examined their hands, the one with the clean hands was guilty.

Another occasion which may have contributed to his reputation as a sorcerer involved a neighbour whose pigeons were found to be eating Napier's grain. Napier warned him that from now on he intended to keep any pigeons found on his property. The next day, it is said, Napier was witnessed surrounded by unusually passive pigeons which he was scooping up and putting in a sack. The previous night he had soaked some peas in brandy, and then sown them. Come morning, the pigeons had gobbled them up, rendering themselves incapable of flight.

Also of note is that a contract still exists between John Napier and one Robert Logan of Restalrig to search Fast Castle (by means of magic) for treasure allegedly hidden there, and wherein it is stated that Napier should

" his utmost diligence to search and seek out, and by all craft and ingine to find out the same, or make it sure that no such thing has been there."


An alternative unit to the decibel used in electrical engineering, the neper, is named after John Napier, as is Napier University in Edinburgh.

Neper crater, on the Moon, is also named after him, as was a 1992 asteroid, 7096 Napier.

List of works

  • (1593) A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John.
  • (1614) Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio (a translation into English by Edward Wright was published in 1616).
  • (1617) Rhabdologia (published posthumously).
  • (1619) Mirifici logarithmorum canonis constructio (written before the 'Descriptio', but published posthumously by his son Robert)

See also



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