Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland
John Napier and Napier’s Bones
Just as William Shakespeare was writing about the fictional Macbeth scheming to become King of Scotland, the real-life 8th Laird of Merchiston, the mathematician John Napier, was devising schemes for simplifying multiplication. His best-known inventions are Napier’s Bones and logarithms (see sidebar). He also helped popularize the decimal point.
Napier was born in 1550 at Merchiston Tower in Edinburgh. The tower was the seat of the Clan Napier, which still exists today; John Napier was the clan’s 8th laird. The tower is also still standing, but is no longer used by the clan; it forms part of Napier University’s Merchiston campus. Outside the main entrance of the university’s Craighouse campus stands a statue of a rather fearsome-looking John Napier, holding his “bones” in one hand.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to visit Merchiston Tower’s interior, but standing in front of it you can still imagine John Napier working on his invention here, 400 years ago. And that invention has underpinned much of the rest of technological progress. The ability to easily do multiplication and division and the subsequent invention of the slide rule (page 138) made it possible to engineer ...