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John Napier, of Merchiston, near Edinburgh, the celebrated inventor of the logarithms, was born in the year 1550. He was descended from an ancient race of land proprietors in Stirlingshire and Dumbartonshire. His father, Sir Alexander Napier of Edinbellie, in the former county, and Merchiston, in the county of Edinburgh, was master of the mint to James VI., and was only sixteen years of age when the subject of this memoir was born. The mother of the inventor of the logarithms was Janet, only daughter of Sir Francis Bothwell, a lord of session, and sister of Adam, bishop of Orkney. There is a prevalent notion that the inventor of the logarithms was a nobleman: this has arisen from his styling himself, in one of his title pages, Baro Merchistonii; in reality, this implied baron in the sense of a superior of a barony, or what in England would be called lord of a manor. Napier was simply Laird of Merchiston—a class who in Scotland sat in parliament under the denomination of the lesser barons.
Napier was educated at St Salvator’s college, in the university of St Andrews which he entered in 1562. He afterwards travelled on the continent, probably to improve himself by intercourse with learned and scientific men. Nothing further is ascertained respecting him, till after he had reached the fortieth year of his age. He is then found settled at the family seats of Merchiston, near Edinburgh, and Gartness, in Stirlingshire, where he seems to have practiced the life of a recluse student, without the least desire to mingle actively in political affairs. That his mind was alive, however, to the civil and religious interests of his country, is proved by his publishing, in 1593, an exposition of the Revelations, in the dedication of which, to the king, he urged his majesty, in very plain language, to attend better than he did to the enforcement of the laws, and the protection of religion, beginning reformation in his own "house, family, and court." From this it appears that Napier belonged to the strict order of Presbyterians in Scotland; for such are exactly the sentiments chiefly found prevalent among that class of men at this period of our history.
In the scantiness of authenticated materials for the biography of Napier, some traditionary traits become interesting. It is said that, in his more secluded residence at Gartness, he had both a waterfall and a mill in his immediate neighbourhood, which considerably interrupted his studies. He was, however, a great deal more tolerant of the waterfall than of the mill; for while the one produced an incessant and equable sound, the other was attended with an irregular clack-clack, which marred the processes of his mind, and sometimes even rendered it necessary for him, when engaged in an unusually abstruse calculation, to desire the miller to stop work. He often walked abroad in the evening, in a long mantle, and attended by a large dog; and these circumstances working upon minds totally unable to appreciate the real nature of his researches, raised a popular rumour of his being addicted to the black art. It is certain that, no more than other great men of his age, was he exempt from a belief in several sciences now fully proved to have been full of imposture. The practice of forming theories only from facts, however reasonable and unavoidable it may appear, was enforced only for the first time by a contemporary of Napier—the celebrated Bacon; and, as yet, the bounds between true and false knowledge were hardly known. Napier, therefore, practiced an art which seems nearly akin to divination, as is proved by a contract entered into, in 1594, between him and Logan of Fastcastle
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