JOHN NAPIER (1550-1617), Scottish mathematician and inventor of logarithms, was born at Merchiston near Edinburgh in 1550, and was the eighth Napier of Merchiston.
The first Napier of Merchiston, "Alexander Napare," acquired the Merchiston estate before the year 1438, from James I.
His son, John Napier of Rusky, the third of Merchiston, belonged to the royal household in the lifetime of his father.
His eldest son, Archibald Napier of Edinbellie, the fourth of Merchiston, belonged to the household of James IV.
His eldest son was Archibald, seventh of Merchiston, and the father of John Napier, the subject of this article.
In 1549 Archibald Napier, at the early age of about fifteen, married Janet, daughter of Francis Bothwell, and in the following year John Napier was born.
In the criminal court of Scotland, the earl of Argyll, hereditary justice-general of the kingdom, sometimes presided in person, but more frequently he delegated his functions; and it appears that in 1561 Archibald Napier was appointed one of the justice-deputes.
About 1565 he was knighted at the same time as James Stirling, his colleague, whose daughter John Napier subsequently married.
As already stated, John Napier was born in 1550, the year in which the Reformation in Scotland may be said to have commenced.
About the end of the year 1579 his wife died, leaving him one son, Archibald (who in 1627 was raised to the peerage by the title of Lord Napier), and one daughter, Jane.
A few years afterwards he married again, his second wife being Agnes, daughter of Sir James 1 The descent of the first Napier of Merchiston has been traced to "Johan le Naper del Counte de Dunbretan," who was one of those who swore fealty to Edward I.
The legend with regard to the origin of the name Napier was given by Sir Alexander Napier, eldest son of John Napier, in 1625, in these words: "One of the ancient earls of Lennox in Scotland had issue three sons: the eldest, that succeeded him to the earldom of Lennox; the second, whose name was Donald; and the third, named Gilchrist.
No equal); and calling Donald into his presence commanded him, in regard to his worthy service, and in augmentation of his honour, to change his name from Lennox to Napier, and gave him the lands of Gosford, and lands in Fife, and made him his own servant, which discourse is confirmed by evidences of mine, wherein we are called Lennox alias Napier."
This committee consisted of six members, two barons, two ministers and two burgesses - the two barons selected being John Napier of Merchiston and James Maxwell of Calderwood.
These interviews took place in October 15 93, and on the 29th of the following January Napier wrote to the king the letter which forms the dedication of the Plaine Discovery.
Napier lived in the very midst of fiercely contending religious factions; there was but little theological teaching of any kind, and the work related to what were then the leading political and religious questions of the day.
Set foorth by John Napier L.
The second edition in English appeared at Edinburgh in 1611, and in the preface to it Napier states he intended to have published an edition in Latin soon after the original publication in 1593, but that, as the work had now been made public by the French and Dutch translations, besides the English editions, and as he was "advertised that our papistical adversaries wer to write larglie against the said editions that are alreadie set out," he defers the Latin edition "till having first seene the adversaries objections, I may insert in the Latin edition an apologie of that which is rightly done, and an amends of whatsoever is amisse."
After the publication of the Plaine Discovery, Napier seems to have occupied himself with the invention of secret instruments of war, for in the Bacon collection at Lambeth Palace there is a document, dated the 7th of.
June 1596 and signed by Napier, giving a list of his inventions for the defence of the country against the anticipated invasion by Philip of Spain.
In 1617 Napier published his Rabdologia, 4 a duodecimo of one hundred and fifty-four pages; there is prefixed to it as preface a dedicatory epistle to the high chancellor of Scotland.
The method which Napier terms "Rabdologia" consists in the use of certain numerating rods for the performance of multiplications and divisions.
John Napier died on the 4th of April 1617, the same year as that in which the Rabdologia was published.
It has been usually supposed that John Napier was buried in St Giles's church, Edinburgh, which was certainly the burialplace of some of the family, but Mark Napier (Memoirs, p. 426) quotes Professor William Wallace, who, writing in 1832, gives strong reasons for believing that he was buried in the old church of St Cuthbert.
It is nowhere else recorded that Napier suffered from the gout.
2 In this treatise (which was written before Napier had invented the name logarithm) logarithms are called "artificial numbers."
When Napier published the Canonis Descriptio England had taken no part in the advance of science, and there is no British author of the time except Napier whose name can be placed in the same rank as those of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Stevinus.
Napier lived, too, not only in a wild country, which was in a lawless and unsettled state during most of his life, but also in a credulous and superstitious age.
Like Kepler and all his contemporaries he believed in astrology, and he certainly also had some faith in the power of magic, for there is extant a deed written in his own handwriting containing a contract between himself and Robert Logan of Restalrig, a turbulent baron of desperate character, by which Napier undertakes "to serche and sik out, and be al craft and ingyne that he dow, to tempt, trye, and find out" some buried treasure supposed to be hidden in Logan's fortress at Fastcastle, in consideration of receiving one-third part of the treasure found by his aid.
As the deed was not destroyed, but is in existence now, it is to be presumed that the terms of it were, riot fulfilled; but the fact that such a contract should have been drawn up by Napier himself affords a singular illustration of the state of society and the kind of events in the midst of which logarithms had their birth.
Considering the time in which he lived, Napier is singularly free from superstition: his Plaine Discovery relates to a method of interpretation which belongs to a later age; he shows no trace of the extravagances which occur everywhere in the works of Kepler; and none of his writings contain allusions to astrology or magic.
After Napier's death his manuscripts and notes came into the possession of his second son by his second marriage, Robert, who edited the Constructio; and Colonel Milliken Napier, Robert's lineal male representative, was still in the possession of many of these private papers at the close of the 18th century.
On one occasion when Colonel Napier was called from home on foreign service, these papers, together with a portrait of John Napier and a Bible with his autograph, were deposited for safety in a room of the house at Milliken, in Renfrewshire.
Fortunately, however, Robert Napier had transcribed his father's manuscript De Arte Logistica, and the copy escaped the fate of the originals in the manner explained in the following note, written in the volume containing them by Francis, seventh Lord Napier: "John Napier of Merchiston, inventor of the logarithms, left his manuscripts to his son Robert, who appears to have caused the following pages to have been written out fair from his father's notes, for Mr Briggs, professor of geometry at Oxford.
Finding them in a neglected state, amongst my family papers, I have bound them together, in order to preserve them entire.-Napier, 7th March 1801."
An account of the contents of these manuscripts was given by Mark Napier in the appendix to his Memoirs of John Napier, and the manuscripts themselves were edited in their entirety by him in 1839 under the title De Arte Logistica Joannis Naperi Merchistonii Baronis Libri qui supersunt.
The treatise occupies one hundred and sixty-two pages, and there is an introduction by Mark Napier of ninety-four pages.
The transcripts are entirely in the handwriting of Robert Napier himself, and the two notes that have been quoted prove that they were made from Napier's own papers.
Napier uses abundantes and defectivae for positive and negative, defining them as meaning greater or less than nothing ("Abundantes sunt quantitates majores nihilo: defectivae sunt quantitates minores nihilo").
Napier may thus have been the first to use the expression "quantity less than nothing."
These rules were published in the Canonis Descriptio (1614), and Napier has there given a figure, and indicated.a method, by means of which they may be proved directly.
Robert Napier says that these results would have been reduced to order and demonstrated consecutively but for his father's death.
Only one of the four analogies is actually given by Napier, the other three being added by Briggs in the remarks which are appended to Napier's results.
The work left by Napier is, however, rough and unfinished, and it is uncertain whether he knew of the other formulae or not.
To Napier seems to be due the first use of the decimal point in arithmetic. Decimal fractions were first introduced by Stevinus in his tract La Disme, published in 1585, but he used cumbrous exponents (numbers enclosed in circles) to distinguish the different denominations, primes, seconds, thirds, &c. Thus, for example, he would have written 123.456 as 123@4050603.
These examples show that Napier was in possession of all the conventions and attributes that enable the decimal point to complete so symmetrically our system of notation, viz.
Napier thus had complete command over decimal fractions and the use of the decimal point.
There seems but little doubt that Napier was the first to make use of a decimal separator, and it is curious that the separator which he used, the point, should be that which has been ultimately adopted, and after a long period of partial disuse.
The office, Mark Napier states, is repeatedly mentioned in the family charters as appertaining to the "pultre landis" near the village of Dene in the shire of Linlithgow.
The pultrelands and the office were sold by John Napier in 1610 for 1700 marks.