IT was in this week in 1617 that one of the greatest of all mathematicians, John Napier, died at his home in Edinburgh.

Remembered forever as the man who invented logarithms, Napier was the archetypal Scottish lad o’ pairts, a man who never stopped learning and whose questing mind took him into the front rank of practitioners of several sciences. It is entirely fitting that his greatest memorial is the university in Edinburgh that bears his name.

Napier was born in 1550, a time of considerable tumult in Scotland and Europe generally. The Protestant Reformation was sweeping across the continent, and before Napier was a teenager, Scotland had already turned its back on Rome and the Kirk held sway in almost all walks of life.

Napier would adhere to the reformed faith all his life and is said to have valued his religious works more than his scientific output.

He had the advantage of being born into a wealthy family, his father being Archibald Napier, the seventh Laird of Merchiston, who also owned several estates elsewhere in Scotland. His mother was Janet Bothwell of a well-connected family – her father was a judge and parliamentarian – and he had a brother, Francis, and a sister, Janet.

It is presumed that he was educated privately at Merchiston Castle before going to St Andrews to St Salvator’s College at the of 13 – it was not uncommon for boys to matriculate at such an early age in those times.

Napier’s mother died shortly after he arrived at the university, and he appears to have decided to continue his studies abroad, perhaps to assuage his grief but more likely because he was so far ahead of his peers.

His maternal uncle, the Bishop of Orkney, had recommended that his nephew go to the great centres of learning such as Paris and Geneva, and with the principal aim of learning Greek, the language of the philosophers and biblical texts, Napier left for Europe in 1564.

The truth is that we don’t know where Napier studied in Europe, but it was probably just as well for him that he was out of the country at a time when Scotland descended into civil war between the forces loyal to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the new Protestant ascendancy. That conflict was still going on when Napier returned to Scotland in 1571 to find that his father was now a knight and had plans to marry off his son and heir.

Thus, John Napier married Elizabeth Stirling of Keir and he set up home at Gartness in Stirlingshire, Merchiston Castle being caught up in the ongoing conflict. They had two children before Elizabeth died in 1579, after which Napier married Elizabeth’s second cousin Agnes Chisholm and had 10 children with her.

Napier duly devoted himself to the upkeep of the family’s various estates, and he considerably enriched them with various innovations. Living at Gartness also gave Napier a place and time to allow his studies of theology to progress.

It’s a remarkable fact that the publication which first made Napier renowned was an anti-Catholic tract called A Plaine Discovery Of The Whole Revelation Of St John, which became a best-seller in 1593 and was translated into French and German.

Relying on the Book of Revelation, he calculated the end of the world, which thankfully he got wrong – as he said 1688 or 1700.

Napier also invented a new form of Archimedes’ screw which helped revolutionise Scottish agriculture, as did his study on the use of salts to improve land.

Fearing invasion by Catholic Spain, he turned his mind to inventing various war machines, including a recognisable tank and submarine. He sent his publication, “Secrett inventionis, profitabill and necessary in the defence of this lland, and withstanding Strangers, enemies of God’s truth”, to King James VI in 1596.

He already knew James, as the quality of the produce on Napier’s farms was such that he had been appointed the King’s Poulterer and his “Plaine Discovery” was dedicated to the king. They also had a shared interest in witchcraft, and at various times in his life, Napier’s creativity saw him suspected of being a witch – he was never formally accused of it, but he may well have studied alchemy because just about any thinker in those days tried it.

Refurbishing Merchiston Castle and moving the family to live there from 1608, Napier’s greatest works now arrived. He had become fascinated by the prospect of making arithmetical calculations easier, and after many years of study in 1614 he published Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio, which contained 57 pages of explanatory matter and 90 pages of tables of numbers. At a stroke, Napier’s invention – more correctly his discovery – of logarithms revolutionised the science of calculations, and he made further progress with the invention of an early calculator called Napier’s bones or Napier’s rods.

Astronomers and navigators alike used Napier’s inventions and he began to be consulted by prominent mathematicians such as Henry Briggs. But Napier’s health declined and he died, probably of the effects of the gout which plagued him, on April 4, 1617. His burial place may have been in the Napier tomb of St Giles or at St Cuthbert’s Church just west of Edinburgh Castle where he happily served as an elder for many years. His remains may be lost, but his achievements will never be forgotten.