Henry Briggs and the Popularization on Logarithms

Logarithm Plot

Plot of logarithms with bases 2, e, and 10

On January 26, 1630, English mathematician and committed puritan Henry Briggs passed away. He is notable for changing the original logarithms invented by John Napier into common (base 10) logarithms, which are sometimes known as Briggsian logarithms in his honour.

Henry Briggs was born in Halifax, however, his exact date of birth remains unknown. His early family life is also not too well known, but it is believed that he became very proficient at Greek and Latin during his education at a grammarschool near Warley Wood. Briggs received his M.A. around 1585 and was elected a fellow of St John’s College.

Henry Briggs’ lectureship was in the field of medicine, but he was also appointed as an examiner and lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge around 1592. Just a few years later, he became the very first professor of geometry at Gresham College. The institute had just been founded and it was famed as the birthplace of the Royal Society of London about 25 years after Briggs left. In his active period at Gresham, it has been found that Briggs was quite enthusiastic about astronomy and was corresponding with James Ussher at Trinity College, Dublin. Briggs’ interest revolved around eclipses in particular. It is believed that he read Napier’s work on logarithms in order to help his astronomical calculations. Back then, Briggs was already involved in producing tables to help complex calculations and he already published two tables before even finding out about Napier’s logarithms. When Briggs read Napier’s work on logarithms, he wrote to James Ussher:

Napper, lord of Markinston, hath set my head and hands a work with his new and admirable logarithms. I hope to see him this summer, if it please God, for I never saw a book which pleased me better or made me more wonder. [1]

However, Briggs noticed a few problems with Napier’s calculations. He discussed that it causes major difficulties that Napier log 1 does not equal 0. Interesting is however, that even though Briggs is widely made responsible for the change to logarithms with log 1 = 0, the scientist himself gives the credit for the idea to Napier. It is believed that the idea avolved in discussions between Napier and Briggs. Briggs visited Napier several times, first in 1615 and his first work on logarithms, titled as ‘Logarithmorum Chilias Prima‘ was published in 1617 and John Napier died in the same year. [1,2]

Henry Briggs’ mathematical treatise Arithmetica Logarithmica was published in 1624 and the author gave logarithms of the natural numbers from 1 to 20,000 and 90,000 to 100,000 computed to 14 decimal places. Further, the work introduced tables of natural sine functions, tan, and sec functions. [1]

At yovisto, you may learn more about Henry Briggs in the “400 years of Geometry at Gresham College” lecture by Professor Robin Wilson.

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