The Scottish mathematician John Napier was born to Sir Archibald Napier; the seventh Laird of Merchiston and Janet Bothwell in the Merchiston Castle, Edinburgh on August 1, 1550.
Following the tradition of studies for the noble families then, Napier did not receive any formal education but got tuitions at home. Despite this arrangement, he was very intelligent. At just the age of 13, he started attending the St Salvator’s College at the University of St Andrews but left in between without further pursuing a degree. He later received higher education from Europe and returned to his homeland in 1571. Napier got married in 1572 to Elizabeth with whom he had two children. He had ten more children from his second wife Agnes Chisholm, whom he had married after Elizabeth’s death in 1579.
During his studies, Napier had developed great interest in Theology and remained an active participant of religious activities. His first publication was also a religious work titled as Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John and was written against the Spanish Blanks; a conspiracy to extinguish Catholics from Scotland in 1594. He also supported them by designing new weapons for their defense.
Napier used to utilize his free time in mathematical research. In early 1594, he started working on logarithms and by 1614; he got them published as Mirifici logarithmorum canonis description (A Description of the Wonderful Law of Logarithms) that proved to be his most popular and useful work. He gave explanation of logarithms along with logarithm tables which helped in carrying out mathematical operations like multiplication in very short times. We now know them as natural logarithm. Translated versions of his book were also available in the following years in different languages.
His work was acknowledged by numerous mathematicians including Henry Briggs, a professor at Gresham College. He came to Scotland in 1615 and worked with Napier to revise the logarithm table such that it would make calculations simpler and easier. The new table got published in 1624 and was named as table of common logarithms. This fine mathematical work offered wide range of applications, even in astronomy and physics.
Another of Napier’s very famous inventions includes Napier’s bones that provided a mechanical method for multiplication and division. Ivory rods having bone like structure were used in this device which formulated the name Napier’s bones. He explained his device in his book Rabdologiae; seu Numerationes per Virgulas libri duo (based on two volumes) in 1617. This working of this incredible invention resulted in future developments such as analog computers and slide rule.
Along with Henry Briggs, Napier also worked on trigonometric relations which were presented as Napier’s analogies. Napier’s Rules of Circular Parts is another of his works in trigonometry that proved theorems on spherical trigonometry.
As an extension to his logarithm tables, Napier also worked on computation of logarithm. His work could not get published during his lifetime, but it later got published after his death in 1920 as Mirifici logarithmorum canonis construction.
In 1617 only, chronic gout resulted in the death of John Napier. He passed away on April 4, 1617 in his birth place; the Edinburgh city of Scotland where he was spending the last few years of his life and was buried in St. Cuthbert’s Church.