Biography of John Napier

John Neper can rightly be called the star of mathematics and theology.

Childhood and early years

John Nepper, born in 1550, came from a noble family. His father, Sir Archibald Nepper, the seventh Lord Merchiston, was a significant figure in Scotland in the sixteenth century, and his mother, Janet Bothwell, was a daughter of a member of the Scottish Parliament of the Three Estates.

In many respects following the noble traditions of the time, parents gave the child to school only when he was 13 years old. However, the formation of John quickly ends, as the school he throws and decides to go on a journey to mainland Europe. Little is known about his life outside of England. In 1571, Nipper returned to Scotland.

Theology and Discoveries

John Nepper, like his father, shows a keen interest in religious matters. Being an ardent opponent of Catholicism, Nepper Junior participates in all political and religious disputes of his time, which is largely promoted by his broad financial capabilities. The interest in the biblical Book of Revelations will lead to the first work of Napier, “A Simple Explanation of All the Revelations of St. John,” published in 1593. The book, based on the Neper’s reading of the Book of the Apocalypse, accuses the Roman Church of horrifying injustice towards the flock and announces the Pope of Antichrist. The book evokes great interest among the public and is translated into several languages: Dutch, French, English and German. To this day the manuscript occupies an honorable place in the history of the Scottish church.

Contribution to mathematics

Napier’s interest in astronomy leads him to the study of mathematics. All his free time, the scientist devotes himself to the research and compilation of his own methods of performing calculations that could facilitate the work of astronomers. The logarithm, as we know it today, was first proposed by Nepper, who, in the course of his research, developed a new, simpler way of complex numerical calculations. He discovers that, by introducing an exponent, the multiplication and division of large numbers turn into a simple addition of exponents. So, gradually, he comes to the development of a computation system in which the roots, products and particulars can easily be determined from a table showing the possibilities of the number at the bottom of the logarithm. The discovery of Napier was...presented to the public in 1614 in his book “Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio”. In that work, only briefly describing the steps that led to this discovery, the main efforts focus on demonstrating the first tables of logarithms. These tables not only find immediate application among astronomers and scientists around the world, but also pave the way for other collective research, including the development of a decimal system.

In his second work, Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Constructio, published posthumously, Napier develops the theory of decimal fractions, first proposed by the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin. Napier’s assumption that the whole part of a number can be separated from its decimal part by a simple dot produces a furore in the UK. Advances in computing through the use of logarithms not only simplified manual calculations, but also opened the door to further scientific discoveries in astronomy, dynamics, physics and even astrology.

Despite the fact that the introduction of logarithms overshadows all other discoveries of the scientist, he nevertheless made a considerable contribution to the sphere of spherical trigonometry. Two formulas known as “formulas of the Napier analogy” used in solving spherical triangles, as well as an invention called the “Nepa rods” – a mechanical calculator, with which you can perform operations of multiplication, division, extraction of square and cubic roots, also does the honor this giant of mathematical thought. His theories of the late period were set forth in the book Rabdologiae seu Numerationis per Virgulas libri duo.

Personal life

In 1572, John Nepper connected himself by marriage with Elizabeth Sterling, the daughter of James Sterling, Lord Cyrus and Codder in the fourth generation. The Lord sends a couple of children. But in 1579 Elizabeth dies, and Napier marries a second time, on Agnes Chizhholm, from which he will have ten children.

Death and heritage

John Nepper left this world on April 4, 1617, the reason for which, presumably, was the gout he suffered. The scientist was buried in the Church of St. Cuthbert in Edinburgh. Only a small example of respect for his contribution to science can be the fact that in his honor was named the unit of measurement in electrical engineering, an alternative decibel, as well as the University of Edinburgh, Napier, located in the capital of Scotland. Also, on the moon there is a crater, named after this outstanding scientist.


Biography of John Napier