The Life of John Napier

Last Updated on

John Napier was born in the year of 1550 at Merchiston Tower in the City of Edinburgh in Scotland.  He dies at the age of 67 on April 4, 1617  in his home town of Edinburgh, Scotland.  If you were to choose a top ranking table of world mathematicians then Napier would almost certainly feature in it.   He spent much of his life including his work as an Alma mater at the University of St Andrews where he was also a Doctoral adviser.  Of course as any school child will probably  know he is most famous for that little book of Logarithms.  However he was a man of many talents and he is also famous for such things as Napier Bones and the introduction of the Decimal Notation. John Napier of Merchistonalso signed as Neper, Nepair, nicknamed Marvellous Merchiston, was a Scottish landowner known as mathematician, physicist, and astronomer. He was also actually the eighth Laird of Merchiston. His Latinized name was Joanne Nepero or Joannis Neperi.  However we know him know as John Napier and is certainly best known as the discoverer of logarithms.

John Napier was featured in the recent BBC’s history of mathematics which you can still get on the BBC iPlayer for a few weeks.  If you’re outside the UK then this article entitled How to Watch UK TV from USA should help, you just need to hide your location and it all should work perfectly.

He also invented the so called Napier’s bones and made common the use of the decimal point in arithmetic and math. Napier’s birthplace, Merchiston Tower in Edinburgh, Scotland, is now part of the facilities of Edinburgh Napier University. After he died from the effects of gout, Napier’s remains were buried in St Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh. Napier’s father was Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston Castle, and his mother was Janet Bothwell, daughter of the politician and judge Francis Bothwell, Lord of Session, and a sister of Adam Bothwell who became the Bishop of Orkney. Archibald Napier was 16 years old when John Napier was born.

As was the common practice for members of the nobility during that time, John Napier didn’t enter schools until he was 13. He didn’t stay in school very long, however. Little is known about those years, where, when, or with whom he might have studied, although his uncle Adam Bothwell wrote a letter to John’s father on 5 December 1560, saying I pray you, sir, to send John to the schools either to France or Flanders, for he can learn no good at home, and it is believed that this advice was followed. In 1571, Napier, aged 21, returned to Scotland, and purchased A castle in Gartness in 1574.

On the death of his father in 1608, Napier and his family moved to Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, where he resided the rest of his life. Advances in maths – His work, Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio contained fifty seven pages of explanatory matter and ninety pages of tables of numbers related to natural logarithms. The book also has a fantastic discussion of theorems in spherical trigonometry, commonly known as Napier’s rules on circular parts.

Jim Hamilton. Watch BBC iPlayer in Spain