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People > Scottish Innovators > John Napier

Notable Scots: Innovation & Discovery

John Napier, 8th Laird of Merchistoun (c1550-1617):

Mathematician, physicist, & astronomer

John Napier
John Napier

Although little is known about the life of this mathematician, his contributions to the field remain eminent. Napier is credited with the invention or discovery of logarithms, the power or exponent to which a base number must be raised to produce a given number. They were first seen in a book he published in 1614 called Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descripto. Logarithms greatly contributed to many advances in mathematics and sciences, particularly in astronomy, by making difficult calculations possible. They assisted Johannes Kepler in discovering the laws of planetary motion, and laid the foundation on which Sir Isaac Newton would later build his theories of gravity.

Perhaps because of his intelligence, Napier was also believed to dabble in the occult. His neighbors suspected him of practicing alchemy and necromancy, and thought a particular black rooster to be his "familiar spirit". By using this rooster, Napier was able to pick out the culprit among his servants who had been stealing from him. Napier ordered each servant, one by one, into a dark room with the bird, where they were to stroke it. Afterwards, Napier said, the rooster would tell him who among them was the thief. The guilty party was then successfully apprehended.

Merchistoun Castle
Merchistoun Castle

Although this plot became a catalyst for wild rumors, it had nothing to do with sorcery. Napier had covered the rooster with soot. Those servants who were innocent had no qualms about petting the animal, so Napier was able to discern the guilty party by picking out the person with clean hands.

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