He was ‘the person to
whom the title of great man is more justly due than to any other whom this
country has produced’. In this simple pronouncement, the Scottish
intellectual David Flume summed up his fellow countryman John Napier.
Yet most Scots know little
or nothing about the 16th-century mathematician, philosopher and inventor
who, from his secluded tower in Scotland, produced the vital tool needed
by mankind to explore the globe and fathom the universe. Without Napier's
invention of logarithms and the decimal notation for complex fractions,
the discoveries of others such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton would have
been hindered by years of long and complex calculations.
For decades Napier wrestled
with mathematics in the privacy of his home, while his superstitious
neighbours grew convinced he was involved in sorcery and witchcraft.
Dressing in a long, black gown to match his thick, black beard, he did
nothing to dispel their illusions. He achieved one of the greatest
mathematical discoveries of all time while living through one of the most
violent and turbulent periods in Scotland’s history with his home town
of Edinburgh embroiled in civil war and ravaged by the plague.
For centuries his
reputation remained almost as obscure as the location of his unmarked
grave somewhere in the capital. But his name now lives on at Napier
University in Edinburgh, this year celebrating the 450th anniversary of
his birth in 1550.
Last month an honorary
degree was conferred on Brigadier General John Hawkins Napier II, who
travelled from his American home to receive the honour bestowed upon him
thanks to his illustrious ancestor.
Now the university is
setting its sights on education and encouraging the mathematical
inquisitiveness which so characterised the esteemed man from whom it takes
its name, as it prepares to launch John Napier’s Mathematical Challenge
for Schools, to run over the coming months.
Best known in his lifetime
as author of a Protestant theological work that probed the prophecies of
the Apocalypse to prove the Pope was the Antichrist, Napier was far from
the modern idea of a mathematician - he was a late-Renaissance man whose
powers of lateral thinking took in everything from agricultural
improvement to devising engines of war.
There was plenty of
conflict brewing when he was born at Merchiston Castle outside Edinburgh,
the son of Sir Archibald Napier, a Scottish judge and wealthy landowner.
Three years previously,
Napier’s grandfather had been slain while fighting in the army of Mary
Queen of Scots against the English at the Battle of Pinkie. John Napier
would spend most of his life trying not to get involved in the sectarian
strife that swept Scotland. He was not always successful — at 17 he was
forced to study abroad, having left St Andrews University prematurely
after his friendship with a Catholic student was thought inadvisable in
such sensitive times.
Returning to Edinburgh in
1571, he found the capital plunged into civil war with constant skirmishes
between the forces of Mary attempting a Catholic comeback, and those of
her young son’s Regent, determined to maintain the Protestant Reformed
church.
Napier returned to find his
father imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle by the Queen’s party, while the
family home at Merchiston was occupied by the forces of the Regent, then
besieging Edinburgh. The following year, when Merchiston was bombarded by
the guns of Edinburgh Castle, Napier sought refuge on one of the family
estates at Gartness in Stirlingshire. There he met and fell in love with
Elizabeth Stirling, daughter of a neighbouring landowner, and, in 1573,
they married.
He built the family home on
the banks of the River Endrick at Gartness. There, according to the
Statistical Account of Scotland, ‘John Napier of Merchiston, Inventor of
Logarithms, resided a great part of his time when he was making his
calculations.
‘It is reported that the
noise of the cascade, being constant, never gave him uneasiness; but that
the clack of the mill, which was only occasional, greatly disturbed his
thoughts. He was therefore, when in deep study, sometimes under the
necessity of desiring the miller to stop the mill, that the train of his
ideas might not be interrupted.’ In this haven of tranquility, Napier’s
young wife bore him a son and a daughter but their happiness was
shortlived - in 1579, Elizabeth died. A few years Later, Napler remarried.
Agnes Chisholm, of Cromlix,
Perthshire. was to bear him five sons and five daughters - a large and
noisy brood for a man who liked to spend long hours in silent
contemplation, a lone, eccentric figure accompanied only by a pet black
cockerel.
In his head Napier might be
wrestling with theological or mathematical complexities but to onlookers
his behaviour seemed sinister. Rumours spread that he was a warlock after
he enlisted the help of the cockeral to discover which if his
servants had been stealing from him. Each servant was ordered to go into a
darkened room and stroke the cockeral - the bird would crow, said Napier,
when the guilty servant touched it.
The bird remained silent
but Napier stunned the household by immediately identifying the culprit.
Surely this was sorcery. But all he had done was put soot on the
cockerel's feathers - the innocent servants all had black on their hands,
while the guilty one's were clean because he was afraid to touch the bird.
At Merchiston, when pigeons
belonging to a neighbouring landowner had been eating Napier's grain, he
threatened to restrain them. 'Do so, if you can catch them,' scoffed his
neighbour. Next morning, Napier's servants could be seen stuffing hundreds
of semi-conscious pigeons into sacks. Onlookers were convinced Napier had
bewitched them - in fact he had simply scattered succulent peas soaked in
wine to get the birds drunk and incapable.
He put this gift of
original thought to good use in many fields, including the farmland around
Gartness. He discovered that putting salt on the land would help kill
weeds and fertilise the soil. He worked out the optimum quantities and
published a book, The New Order of Gooding and Manuring all sorts of Field
Land with Common Salt.
But he could do nothing to
avert the plague that struck Edinburgh in the 1590's, when the city
fathers expelled victims to plague houses which they erected without
permission on Napier's land at Merchiston - he fought a long legal battle
to have them removed.
To a modern mind, he also
wasted much thought and ingenuity on obscure theology. But in 1593, when
Napier published his Plan Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John,
his book became an international best-seller in the Protestant world,
running to nine editions in Huguenot France, four in Germany and three in
Holland, as well as five in English.
At a time when Protestant
countries regarded Catholicism as a threat to national security, any book
proving the Pope was the Antichrist was bound to go down well. Less
acceptable was Napier's interest in the occult - he dabbled in alchemy and
witchcraft and passed on his knowledge to his son Robert, although when
King James was burning witches at Edinburgh Castle it was as well to keep
this interest secret.
Napier's reputation as a
sorcerer led him into dubious association with the thuggish Robert Logan
of Restalrig, who had been involved in the Gowrie Conspiracy to abduct the
King and imprison him at Fastcastle, Logan's private fortress on the East
Coast, where his family were in the habit of committing robbery with
violence on any passer-by. For this Logan had been declared an outlaw, yet
inexplicably Napier agreed to help him search for buried treasure at
Fastcastle. Luckily none were ever found, since Logan would rather have
committed murder than hand over Napier's share.
But while dabbling in the
occult was a private folly, Scotland's religious differences were a public
grief for Napier. Since 1588, when the Spanish Armada threatened
Protestant Scotland, he had been a commissioner of the Church of Scotland.
After the Armada was
wrecked, Scottish Catholic nobles continued to intrigue with the King of
Spain. Among them was Napier's father-in-law, Sir James Chisholm. In 1593,
Napier had the unpleasant task of sitting on the Kirk convention that Sir
James excommunicated.
Yet Napier was a staunch
supporter of the Protestant cause and, when Catholic Spain threatened
another invasion in 1596, he turned his powers on invention to weapons of
war.
In his Secrete Inventionis
he published details of a giant mirror to burn enemy ships by focusing the
sun's rays on them, a man-powered tank, a submarine, and a form of
artillery which could clear a field of anything standing over a foot high.
In the event none of these were needed.
Napier pressed on with
invention and theology and in fact it was not until the age of 64 that he
published his greatest discovery - logarithms - with the boast: "This
new course of Logarithms doth clean take away all the difficulty that
heretofore hath been in mathematical calculations.'
The impact of Napier's work
was enormous. While explorers voyaged across the globe, they could not
navigate accurately or map their discoveries because the calculations were
too complicated to perform rapidly on board a ship. When a captain had a
copy of Napier's log tables, all this changed.
Without an advance in
mathematics to underpin the growth of science in understanding the
universe, it had been impossible to chart the orbit of the planets around
the sun - the necessary calculations were so complex that it would take
decades to achieve. Napier's logarithms, for which he had devised the
decimal point as a way of expressing complex fractions, enabled a
breakthrough.
Johannes Kepler, who in
1609 first published his work on the laws of planetary motion, had taken
four years to calculate the orbit of Mars alone.
It might have taken him
longer than a lifetime to work out the rest, had he not obtained Napier's
logarithms.
In 1619 he wrote to Napier
to acknowledge his great debt - only to find the hitherto unknown Scottish
mathematical genius had died two years previously.
But before his death Napier
had left full details of how his logarithms had been calculated, and had
left one final invention as a boon to the merchant classes. Napier's Rods,
or Napier's Bones as they were called from the material they were made of,
were in effect a powerful pocket calculator.
Each set of 11 rods, marked
off in numbered squares, could be assembled in different ways to multiply
or divide large numbers by reading down and across the columns of figures
created.
But in such success lay his
ultimate downfall.
In his calculations and
methodologies he made possible the very modern technology which was to
supersede him and render him until now, Scotland's greatest and most
forgotten man. Sir
John Napier, eighth Laird of Merchiston was born in 1550 at Merchiston
Tower, which was then just outside the boundary of the city of
Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, and was known as the 'Marvellous
Merchiston', a title which was well-deserved, for his genius and
imaginative vision encompassed a number of fields.
**Another
account**
NAPIER,
JOHN, of Merchiston, near Edinburgh, the celebrated inventor of the
logarithms, was born in the year 1550. He was descended from an ancient
race of land proprietors in Stirlingshire and Dumbartonshire. His father,
Sir Alexander Napier of Edinbellie, in the former county, and Merchiston,
in the county of Edinburgh, was master of the mint to James VI., and was
only sixteen years of age when the subject of this memoir was born. The
mother of the inventor of the logarithms was Janet, only daughter of Sir
Francis Bothwell, a lord of session, and sister of Adam, bishop of Orkney.
There is a prevalent notion that the inventor of the logarithms was a
nobleman: this has arisen from his styling himself, in one of his title
pages, *Baro Merchistonii; *in reality, this implied *baron *in
the sense of a superior of a barony, or what in England would be called
lord of a manor. Napier was simply *Laird *of Merchiston—a class who
in Scotland sat in parliament under the denomination of the
*lesser barons.* *
*
Napier was educated at St
Salvator’s college, in the university of St Andrews which he entered in
1562. He afterwards travelled on the continent, probably to improve
himself by intercourse with learned and scientific men. Nothing further is
ascertained respecting him, till after he had reached the fortieth year of
his age. He is then found settled at the family seats of Merchiston, near
Edinburgh, and Gartness, in Stirlingshire, where he seems to have
practiced the life of a recluse student, without the least desire to
mingle actively in political affairs. That his mind was alive, however, to
the civil and religious interests of his country, is proved by his
publishing, in 1593, an exposition of the Revelations, in the dedication
of which, to the king, he urged his majesty, in very plain language, to
attend better than he did to the enforcement of the laws, and the
protection of religion, beginning reformation in his own "house, family,
and court." From this it appears that Napier belonged to the strict order
of Presbyterians in Scotland; for such are exactly the sentiments chiefly
found prevalent among that class of men at this period of our history.
In the scantiness of
authenticated materials for the biography of Napier, some traditionary
traits become interesting. It is said that, in his more secluded residence
at Gartness, he had both a waterfall and a mill in his immediate
neighbourhood, which considerably interrupted his studies. He was,
however, a great deal more tolerant of the waterfall than of the mill; for
while the one produced an incessant and equable sound, the other was
attended with an irregular *clack-clack*, which marred the processes
of his mind, and sometimes even rendered it necessary for him, when
engaged in an unusually abstruse calculation, to desire the miller to stop
work. He often walked abroad in the evening, in a long mantle, and
attended by a large dog; and these circumstances working upon minds
totally unable to appreciate the real nature of his researches, raised a
popular rumour of his being addicted to the black art. It is certain that,
no more than other great men of his age, was he exempt from a belief in
several sciences now fully proved to have been full of imposture. The
practice of forming theories only from facts, however reasonable and
unavoidable it may appear, was enforced only for the first time by a
contemporary of Napier—the celebrated Bacon; and, as yet, the bounds
between true and false knowledge were hardly known. Napier, therefore,
practiced an art which seems nearly akin to divination, as is proved by a
contract entered into, in 1594, between him and Logan of Fastcastle—afterwards
so celebrated for his supposed concern in the Gowry conspiracy. This
document states it to have been agreed upon, that, as there were old
reports and appearances that a sum of money was hid within Logan’s house
of Fastcastle, John Napier should do his utmost diligence to search and
seek out, and by all craft and ingine (a phrase for mental power) to find
out the same, or make it sure that no such thing has been there. For his
reward he was to have the exact third of all that was found, and to be
safely guarded by Logan back to Edinburgh; and in case he should find
nothing, after all trial and diligence taken, he was content to refer the
satisfaction of his travels and pains to the discretion of Logan. What was
the result of the attempt, or if the attempt itself was ever made, has not
been ascertained.
Besides dabbling in
sciences which had no foundation in nature, Napier addicted himself to
certain speculations which have always been considered as just hovering
between the possible and the impossible, a number of which he disclosed,
in 1596, to Anthony Bacon, the brother of the more celebrated philosopher
of that name. One of these schemes was for a burning mirror, similar to
that of Archimedes, for setting fire to ships; another was for a mirror to
produce the same effects by a material fire; a third for an engine which
should send forth such quantities of shot in all directions as to clear
everything in its neighbourhood; and so forth. In fact, Napier’s seems to
have been one of those active and excursive minds, which are sometimes
found to spend a whole life in projects and speculations without producing
a single article of real utility, and in other instances hit upon one or
two things, perhaps, of the highest order of usefulness. As he advanced in
years, he seems to have gradually forsaken wild and hopeless projects, and
applied himself more and more to the useful sciences. In 1596, he is found
suggesting the use of salt in improving land; an idea probably passed over
in his own time as chimerical, but revived in the present age with good
effect. No more is heard of him till, in 1614, he astonished the world by
the publication of his book of logarithms. He is understood to have
devoted the intermediate time to the study of astronomy, a science then
reviving to a new life, under the auspices of Kepler and Galileo, the
former of whom dedicated his Ephemerides to Napier, considering him as the
greatest man of his age in the particular department to which he applied
his abilities.
"The demonstrations,
problems, and calculations of astronomy, most commonly involve some one or
more of the cases of trigonometry, or that branch of mathematics, which,
from certain parts, whether sides or angles, of a triangle being given,
teaches how to find the others which are unknown. On this account,
trigonometry, both plane and spherical, engaged much of Napier’s thoughts;
and he spent a great deal of his time in endeavouring to contrive some
methods by which the operations in both might be facilitated. Now, these
operations, the reader, who may be ignorant of mathematics, will observe,
always proceed by geometrical ratios, or proportions. Thus, if certain
lines be described in or about a triangle, one of these lines will bear
the same geometrical proportion to another, as a certain side of the
triangle does to a certain other side. Of the four particulars thus
arranged, three must be known, and then the fourth will be found by
multiplying together certain two of those known, and dividing the product
by the other. This rule is derived from the very nature of geometrical
proportion, but it is not necessary that we should stop to demonstrate
here how it is deduced. It will be perceived, however, that it must give
occasion, in solving the problems of trigonometry, to a great deal of
multiplying and dividing—operations which, as everybody knows, become very
tedious whenever the numbers concerned are large; and they are generally
so in astronomical calculations. Hence such calculations used to exact
immense time and labour, and it became most important to discover, if
possible, a way of shortening them. Napier, as we have said, applied
himself assiduously to this object; and he was, probably, not the only
person of that age whose attention it occupied. He was, however,
undoubtedly the first who succeeded in it, which he did most completely by
the admirable contrivance which we are now about to explain.
"When we say that 1 bears a
certain proportion, ratio, or relation to 2, we may mean any one of two
things; either that 1 is the half of 2, or that it is less than 2 by 1. If
the former be what we mean, we may say that the relation in question is
the same as that of 2 to 4, or of 4 to 8; if the latter, we may say that
it is the same as that of 2 to 3, or of 3 to 4. Now, in the former case,
we should be exemplifying what is called a *geometrical, *in the
latter, what is called an *arithmetical *proportion: the former being
that which regards the number of times, or parts of times, the one
quantity is contained in the other; the latter regarding only the
difference between the two quantities. We have already stated that the
property of four quantities arranged in geometrical proportion, is,** **
that the *product *of the second and third, *divided *by the
first, gives the fourth. But when four quantities are in arithmetical
proportion, the *sum *of the second and third, diminished by the *
subtraction *of the first, gives the fourth. Thus, in the geometrical
proportion, 1 is to 2 as 2 is to 4; if 2 be multiplied by 2 it gives 4;
which divided by 1 still remains 4; while, in the arithmetical proportion,
1 is to 2 as 2 is to 3; if 2 be added to 2 it gives 4; from which if 1 be
subtracted, there remains the fourth term 3. It is plain, therefore, that,
especially where large numbers are concerned, operations by arithmetical
must be much more easily performed than operations by geometrical
proportion; for, in the one case you have only to add and subtract, while
in the other you have to go through the greatly more laborious processes
of multiplication and division.
"Now, it occurred to
Napier, reflecting upon this important distinction, that a method of
abbreviating the calculation of a *geometrical *proportion might
perhaps be found, by substituting, upon certain fixed principles, for its
known terms, others in *arithmetical *proportion, and then finding,
in the quantity which should result from the addition and subtraction of
these last, an indication of that which should have resulted from the
multiplication and division of the original figures. It had been remarked
before this, by more than one writer, that if the series of numbers 1, 2,
4, 8, &c., that proceed in geometrical progression, that is, by a
continuation of geometrical ratios, were placed under or along side of the
series 0, 1, 2, 3, &c., which are in arithmetical progression, the
addition of any two terms of the latter series would give a sum, which
would stand opposite to a number in the former series indicating the
product of the two terms in that series, which corresponded in place to
the two in the arithmetical series first taken. Thus, in the two lines,
1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256,
0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,
the first of which consists
of numbers in geometrical, and the second of numbers in arithmetical
progression, if any two terms, such as 2 and 4, be taken from the latter,
their sum 6, in the same line, will stand opposite to 64 in the other,
which is the product of 4 multiplied by 16, the two terms of the
geometrical series which stand opposite to the 2 and 4 of the
arithmetical. It is also true, and follows directly from this, that if any
three terms, as, for instance, 2, 4, 6, be taken in the arithmetical
series, the sums of the second and third, diminished by the subtraction of
the first, which makes 8, will stand opposite to a number (256) in the
geometrical series which is equal to the product of 16 and 64 (the
opposites of 4 and 6), divided by 4 (the opposite of 2).
"Here, then, is, to a
certain extent, exactly such an arrangement or table as Napier wanted.
Having any geometrical proportion to calculate, the known terms of which
were to be found in the first line or its continuation, he could
substitute for them at once, by reference to such a table, the terms of an
arithmetical proportion, which, wrought in the usual simple manner, would
give him a result that would point out or indicate the unknown term of the
geometrical proportion. But, unfortunately, there were many numbers which
did not occur in the upper line at all, as it here appears. Thus, there
were not to be found in it either 3, or 5, or 6, or 7, or 9, or 10, or any
other numbers, indeed, except the few that happen to result from the
multiplication of any of its terms by two. Between 128 and 256, for
example, there were 127 numbers wanting, and between 256 and the next term
(512) there would be 255 not to be found.
"We cannot here attempt to
explain the methods by which Napier’s ingenuity succeeded in filling up
these chasms, but must refer the reader, for full information upon this
subject, to the professedly scientific works which treat of the history
and construction of logarithms. Suffice it to say, that he devised a mode
by which he could calculate the proper number to be placed in the table
over against any number whatever, whether integral or fractional. The new
numerical expressions thus found, he called *Logarithms, *a term of
Greek etymology, which signifies the ratios or proportions of numbers. He
afterwards fixed upon the progression, 1, 10, 100, 1000, &c., or that
which results from continued multiplication by 10, and which is the same
according to which the present tables are constructed. This improvement,
which possesses many advantages, had suggested itself about the same time
to the learned Henry Briggs, then professor of geometry in Gresham
college, one of the persons who had the merit of first appreciating the
value of Napier’s invention, and who certainly did more than any other to
spread the knowledge of it, and also to contribute to its perfection."
[The above account of logarithms, which has the advantage of being very
simple and intelligible, is extracted from the Library of Entertaining
Knowledge.]
The invention was very soon
known over all Europe, and was everywhere hailed with admiration by men of
science. Napier followed it up, in 1617, by publishing a small treatise,
giving an account of a method of performing the operations of
multiplication and division, by means of a number of small rods. These
materials for calculation have maintained their place in science, and are
known by the appellation of Napier’s Bones.
In 1608, Napier succeeded
his father, when he had a contest with his brothers and sisters, on
account of some settlements made to his prejudice by his father, in breach
of a promise made in 1586, in presence of some friends of the family, not
to sell, wadset, or dispose, from his son John, the lands of Over
Merchiston, or any part thereof. The family disputes were probably
accommodated before June 9, 1613, on which day John Napier was served and
returned heir of his father in the lands of Over Merchiston.
This illustrious man did
not long enjoy the inheritance which had fallen to him so unusually late
in life. He died, April 3, 1617, at Merchiston castle, and was buried in
the church of St Giles, on the eastern side of its southern entrance,
where is still to be seen a stone tablet, exposed to the street, and
bearing the following inscription:—"Sep. familiae Naperoru. interius hic
situm est."
Napier was twice married;
first, in 1571, to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Stirling of Keir, by
whom he had a son and a daughter; secondly, to Agnes, daughter of James
Chisholm of Cromlix, by whom he had ten children. His eldest son,
Archibald, who succeeded him, was raised to the rank of a baron by Charles
I., in 1627, under the title of lord Napier, which is still borne by his
descendants. A very elaborate life of him was published in 1835,
(Blackwood, Edinburgh).
Memoirs of John
Napier of Merchiston, Lineage, Life, and Times
With a History of the Invention of Logarithms by Mark Napier (1834) |