Little is known of Napier's younger years, though the Bishop of Orkney encouraged his parents to "send your son Jhone to the schuyllis; oyer to France or Flanderis; for he can leyr na guid at hame, nor get na proffeitt in this maidst perullous worlde". By 1563 (at thirteen years of age) he matriculated at St. Salvatore's College, St. Andrews, though there is no evidence of his having graduated afterwards. Perhaps Napier studied on the continent, as was the tradition among the gentry, but he returned to Scotland in 1571 where plans were commenced for him to marry Elizabeth Stirling and to construct a castle at Gartness where he and his wife took up residence in 1574. Apparently this was a period when Napier was most involved in religious matters and after some involvement with the Protestant movement, published his first book A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John in 1593. In true Protestant tradition, the treatise interpreted St. John's writings to should that the Pope was also the anti-Christ. During these years Napier had also been working on his other avocation - mathematics - and had commenced writing a book on the art of reckoning, but had abandoned it in favor of his discovery of logarithms, though the latter did not appear in print until 1614. His work on logarithms is all the more astounding when one realizes the restrictions under which he worked - the lack of a notation for a power series, the absence of the decimal point notation and the only recent introduction of the concept of decimal fractions! The impact of logarithms of the scientific world was immense, and led to the invention of the slide rule, a device which was predominant in calculations for three and a half centuries.
Napier was not satisfied with his invention of logarithms but needed to produce tables of logarithmic values, a task which was not substantially assisted by the existence of logarithms themselves! Napier needed assistance in the computation of logarithmic values especially in the process of multiplication. He developed the Rabdologia, otherwise known as "Napier's bones" to solve this problem. His book on this subject contained the first printed reference to the decimal point and contains descriptions of two other devices which have not been the subject of extensive review - the "promptuary", an extension of the bones which permitted the multiplication of two multi-digit numbers, and the "chess-board computer" for location (positional) arithmetic. The latter is unique in its use of binary notation, though it is not clear that Napier based the design on that notation. With respect to each of these devices, Napier extended their potential to provide the capability of performing a number of additional arithmetic operations including root taking, and finding the diameters and side lengths of polygons.
Last updated 2001/08/09
© J.A.N. Lee, 2001.