John Napier (1550-1617)

John Napier was an extraordinary genius. The Encyclopaedia says about him: ‘There is no British author [scientist] of the time except Napier whose name can be placed in the same rank as those of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Stevinus.’ Even David Hume, Edinburgh’s famous atheist, said he was one of the greatest men that Scotland had ever produced. And yet he is largely forgotten today.

Napier was a mathematician and astronomer who was born in Merchiston, Edinburgh, and who invented the logarithm in 1614. He also created what he called ‘Napier’s Bones’ which were rods of ivory with integers on them that were laid down side by side. From these rods mathematicians could calculate sums, quotients, products and square and cube roots. Both the logarithm and Napier’s Bones were the forerunners of our calculator and were essential for astronomers like Kepler to calculate with huge numbers. Edinburgh Napier University has been named after him.

Napier was a dedicated Christian who wrote one of the first biblical commentaries in Scotland called ‘A Plaine Discourse on the Whole Revelation of St John’. His remains are buried in St Cuthbert’s Church just below Edinburgh Castle.