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4.2 John Napier

For many years, John Napier (1550–1617) spent his leisure time devising means for making arithmetical calculations easier. Just why a Scots laird at the turn of the seventeenth century should have thus devoted the energies left over from the management of his estates remains a puzzle. Up to the publication of his description of logarithms in 1614, three years before his death, Napier was best known to the world for his Protestant religious treatise A plaine discovery of the whole Revelation of Saint John (1594), a well received work which was translated into several foreign languages.

Napier's interest in mathematics, and in computational methods in particular, seems to have started in his early twenties (in the 1570s), and continued mostly unknown to the wider world until the flurry of publishing activity forty years later which revealed first his table of logarithms (Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descripto, 1614), then three further computation aids (Rabdologiae, 1617), and after his death an account of how logarithms themselves were calculated.

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Learning outcomes

By the end of this free course you should be able to:

  • understand the significance of John Napier's contributions to mathematics;

  • give examples of the factors that influenced Napier's mathematical work.

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