Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1617, died John Napier

Napier, sometimes spelt Neper, was a mathematician and theologian who correctly forecast that the ‘decimal point’ would revolutionise mathematics, and who wrongly predicted the end of the world.  

Napier was born at Merchiston Tower, Edinburgh. On the death of his father, he became the Laird of Merchiston. Napier spent a brief period at St Andrew’s University and travelled on the Continent, as was the way of the landed gentry of the day.

Napier beguiled his time with mathematical calculations. He was fascinated by the decimal, recently discovered by the Flemish mathematician, Stevin. Napier discovered the relationship between arithmetical and geometrical progressions and, using the correlation, invented a system, which could reduce multiplication to addition. His discovery is now called the logarithms. Napier also invented a system of rods, like an abacus, whereby calculations were facilitated. His device, known as ‘Napier’s Bones’ was the precursor of the slide rule.  

Napier was panic stricken at the thought of a Catholic invasion of Scotland. He believed rightly that James VI of Scots was looking to be crowned king of England and believed wrongly that James was seeking the aid of Catholic monarchs to help him to the crown. Napier used his mathematical skills to invent devices of war for the defence of Scotland. These inventions included a burning mirror, a submarine and a ‘metal chariot from which shot may be discharged’, what today we would call a tank, although Napier never constructed a working model.  

Napier begged King James to purge his court of ‘Papistes and Atheistes’, whom he claimed were a sign of forthcoming destruction. Napier claimed to have retranslated The Book of Revelations and discovered that the end of the world would occur in 1688 or 1700. In fact 1689 marked the end of the Stuart dynasty and 1707 was the end of the independent kingdom of Scotland, so Napier was nearly right.

Napier’s birthplace, Merchiston Tower [10 Colington Road, Edinburgh EH10 5DT], now forms part of Napier University.

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