John Napier
1550 - 1617

Could it be magic? Thatís what many said of the Scottish born mathematician, John Napier. Because common folk could not understand the intelligence of this man, it was easier for them to say it was magic than to try to comprehend Napierís solutions. Because many viewed his ingenuity as almost limitless, his friends and neighbors nicknamed him ďMarvelous MerchistonĒ, after his birthplace, Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh.

Napier is most known for inventing logarithms, which made calculating faster and more accurate. Because of Napierís interest in astronomy and his lack of enthusiasm for doing the seemingly endless calculations astronomers use, Napier introduced his logarithms after twenty years of study and experiment. Napierís Bones, an assortment of rods marked off with numbers which were used for multiplying, dividing, and finding square roots of numbers, is another mechanism developed by Napier, which has since been replaced by the pocket calculator of today. Another credit of Napierís is his use of the decimal point to separate whole numbers from their fractional parts. Agricultural experiments, military weaponry, religion and politics were also topics in which Napier invested his time.

Many problems were solved by Napier at his home, Merchiston Castle. One such problem was his neighborís pigeons coming over and eating his seed and grain in the fields. After warning the neighbor, Napier sent a message to the neighbor saying he was going to catch the birds and keep them if they flew into his fields again. The neighbor laughed and replied that if Napier could catch the pigeons he could keep them. The next morning, Napier was out in his yard picking up pigeons and putting them in a sack. Napier had some unorthodox approaches to solving problems such as this one. Napier had soaked peas in brandy and sprinkled them in the yard for the pigeons to eat. Napier was able to pick up the pigeons because they were drunk!

Another problem that needed solving was the suspicion that there was a thief among Napierís new workers. Tools and supplies had been disappearing but when kitchen tools vanished, Napier decided to take action. After all the workers had denied any wrong doing, Napier gathered the workers and told them he was going to use his truth telling rooster. Each worker was to go in the dark storage room where the rooster was perched, pet it, and then come out. After each worker had done this, Napier asked to see the palms of their hands. Everyone but one worker had black palms. He knew then, the thief was the one with clean palms. Because the guilty worker didnít touch the rooster for fear the rooster would know he was the thief, he kept his hands in his pockets. But what the worker didnít know is Napier had covered the rooster with lamp black. Those who had nothing to hide petted the rooster, thus their hands turned black. But the guilty one, who did not touch the rooster, came out with clean hands. Unorthodox, yes, but very ingenious.

Aside from these works of ďwizardryĒ, Napier spent many years imagining and drawing several military machines. He had sketches of a machine that could travel underwater, a vehicle that could shoot in all directions while moving, and a machine that could kill all cows within a mileís radius. His futuristic weapons came to pass but not in NapierĎs lifetime. The thought of what these machines could do upset him so much, he insisted prototypes never be made. Just imagine how the world would have changed had these ideas reached their full potential in the 1600ís!

Contributed by Linette Liby


  1. Reimer, Wilbert & Reimer, Luetta. Historical Connections in Mathematics. (1992) AIMS Education Foundation.
  2. Reimer, Wilbert & Reimer, Luetta. Mathematicians are People, Too. (1990) Dale Seymour Publications

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