Article ID: CBB001211450

Priority, Parallel Discovery, and Pre-eminence: Napier, Bürgi and the Early History of the Logarithm Relation (2012)


There has never been any doubt as to the importance of the logarithm, a mathematical relation whose usefulness has persisted in different aspects to the present day. Within years of their introduction, logarithms became indispensable for mathematicians, astronomers, navigators, and geographers alike. The question of their origins, however, is more contentious. At least two scholars, the Scottish nobleman John Napier and the Swiss craftsman Jost Bürgi, simultaneously and independently produced proposals which embodied the logarithmic relation and, within years of one another, produced tables for its use. In light of this parallel discovery, we read, analyzed, and interpreted the texts of Napier and Bürgi to better understand and contextualize the two distinctly different approaches. As a result, here we compare and contrast the salient features of Napier's and Bürgi's endeavors and the construction of each man's tables of logarithms. Through these details, we will query the focus on the issue of priority and pre-eminence when discussing the historical development of logarithms, and pose critical questions about the phenomenon of parallel insights and what they can reveal about the mathematical environment at the time they arose.

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Authors & Contributors
Alcime Steiger
Enrique González-Velasco
Émilie Dauphiné
Alexander Corrigan
Marcacci, Flavia
Love, David K.
Historia Mathematica
British Society for the History of Mathematics Bulletin
Studies in History of Medicine and Science
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
Watkins Publishing
Yale University Press
Prometheus Books
Princeton University Press
Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg
Discovery in science
Revolutions in science
Napier, John
Galilei, Galileo
Newton, Isaac
Kepler, Johannes
Descartes, René
Zaragoza, José de
Time Periods
17th century
16th century
Early modern
21st century
Florence (Italy)
British Isles

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