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John Napier
John Napier

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1.6 Spreading the word about logarithms

Another person besides Briggs to recognise immediately the importance of Napier's concept was the navigational practitioner Edward Wright, who translated Napier's Descriptio into English, as A description of the admirable table of logarithmes. The extract linked below comprises the Preface to that work (the translation of Napier's original Preface, with further sentences added by Napier himself).

Click the link below to open the extract.

John Napier’s Preface to A Description of the Admirable Table of Logarithms [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Question 3

What explanation does Napier give of why his work appeared first in Latin, then in English? What light does this throw on your answer to Question 1?


Napier says his book was written in Latin ‘Tor the publique use of Mathematicians, to ensure it shall be the more common’, that is, presumably, more widespread. The English translation is for the benefit of ‘our Countrymen in this Island’ and ‘the more publique good’. This confirms our hypothesis, from Question 1, that Napier had in mind as his primary audience the international mathematical community. He sounds pleased, all the same, that non-Latin speakers in the United Kingdom might find logarithms useful too.

Knowledge of logarithms spread rapidly in various ways. Wright's English translation was one source of knowledge; it was dedicated (by Wright's son, for Wright died before publication) to the East India Company, another of the great trading and exploration companies of the time. This dedication suggests an audience for whom the knowledge was thought to be useful – Wright was navigational consultant to the Company for the last year or two of his life. Knowledge of logarithms spread by word of mouth too; Briggs lectured on them at Gresham College, as did Edmund Gunter, who was appointed Professor of Astronomy there in 1619. Within a decade, editions or similar tables had been published in France, Germany and the Netherlands. As an example of the impact of logarithms abroad, let us consider the response of the astronomer Johannes Kepler.