John Napier Engineer

John Napier / Engineers

  • Name  : Napier
  • Born  : 1550
  • Died  : 1617
  • Category  : Engineer & Mathematician 
  • Finest Moment : Discovery of logarithms

A Renaissance Scot, Napier was born in Edinburgh, or possibly Balfron. He entered St Andrews University aged 13, becoming the 8th Laird of Merchiston when he was 18. He probably travelled abroad for some while, before returning to Merchiston Castle where he remained for the rest of his life. He married twice.

He was strongly anti-Catholic, and was a passionate and committed Protestant. On several occasions he was associated with the general assembly of the Scottish Church, trying to persuade King James VI of Scotland to deal with the Roman Catholics. He wrote the Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John. While of interest to students of theology and Scottish ecclesiastical history, Napier is far better remembered now for his discovery of logarithms. In 1614 he published Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (Description of the Marvelous Canon of Logarithms). His second part, the Construction of Logarithms, was published two years after his death.

Basically, logarithms made the computation of large numbers much easier. Using them is based on using printed tables. They were almost, in effect, paper computers for numbers, long before any other method of calculation was available. Napier beat a Swiss mathematician to this, as Joost Burgi was also working independently on logarithms, from 1603-11, publishing his findings in 1620. Napier had started working on them about 1594, and published in 1614.

Napier also used the decimal point throughout his second paper, as a means of separating the fractional part of a number from the integral part. This was a great improvement on an earlier method. As if this were not enough, in 1617 he published a description of multiplying and dividing numbers using small rods, known as Napier's Bones. They were the precursor to the slide rule, and there is no telling just how far Napier could have gone with better technology.

As a sideshow, he invented various secret instruments of war (does the name Leonardo da Vinci creep into your consciousness at this point'). One of these was a small chariot allowing shot to be fired through small apertures, a sort of armoured, mobile fire-base.

He died at Merchiston Castle, on 4 April 1617, having blazed enough new trails through the mathematical jungle for a whole army of later generations to follow.

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