On a morning of dense fog in November 1972, in a school playground, I saw a hand-held Casio calculator for the first time.
Those glowing digits – the economy with which seven cells described them – the sublime speed of calculation – impressed me hugely. To mathematical dunces everywhere, Casios offered hope. They placed the space age in our palms. They seemed the ultimate shortcut.
Perhaps similar excitement greeted the first appearance of Napier’s Bones (LEVEL 1 – KINGDOM OF THE SCOTS, NEW HORIZONS SECTION).
Invented by Scots polymath John Napier, the example of c.1650 displayed here comprises ivory numbering rods which, properly combined, reduce complicated problems of multiplication and division into simpler ones of addition and subtraction – thereby relieving a ‘tedious expenditure of time’.
Like Casios, the Bones blended promises of usefulness and self-empowerment, the allure of efficiency, portability, affordability, and the disappointing reality of fiddliness. In fact the design soon had to be modified for the rods to align reliably, but the device was fundamentally sound and proved hugely popular across Europe for well over a century.
Napier’s ‘invention’ had actually drawn upon and repackaged the work of many earlier philosophers in Italy, the Middle East and India. Its provenance and impact were international. And that for me is inspiring. I want to live in a receptive Scotland which is outward-looking, in creative dialogue across time, cultures and borders.
And yet Napier was, unavoidably, the product of his own era: a man also capable of sustained invective against popery, a man who argued in print for practical measures to purge the Court of non-Protestants. His diatribes recall other Scottish features recognizable today: sectarian fault lines, obviously; but also a continued appetite for schism and exclusion when faced with difference. Sometimes prejudice stems from ignorance, sometimes from calculative shortcuts.
As a form of technology, this exhibit may have been superseded, but I’m surprised by its continued potency, its capacity to evoke memory (something I’ve never managed on a calculator) and spark ideas. The absence of a known headstone for John Napier has prompted my decision to supply a 62-word epitaph.