Pen Profiles – Set 1 – Polymaths

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01. JAMES CRICHTON, “THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON” (1560-1585/6, polymath)
02. JOHN NAPIER, “MARVELOUS MERCHISTON” (1550-1617, inventor of logarithms, polymath)


01. JAMES CRICHTON, “THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON” (1560-1585/6, polymath)    Crichton06
Nowadays ‘The Admirable Crichton’ is probably best known from a play of that name written in 1902 by James Matthew Barrie. This popular play is about a butler called Crichton who is shipwrecked along with his employer and shows that he is his employer’s better in almost every way. It was inspired by the fact that it was common in the 18th and 19th centuries to refer to someone who was particularly talented as being “like the Admirable Crichton”. The original Admirable Crichton was James Crichton, a Scot whose reputation was developed as he travelled around Europe displaying his many talents. His story would probably have been lost to History had he not been eulogised in a work (commonly referred to as ‘The Jewel’) by Sir Thomas Urquhart in 1652. Noting that that was some 66 years after Crichton’s death, it is probable that the story was somewhat embellished. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that James Crichton, a celebrity in his day, was a true polymath.

The following is taken (slightly paraphrased) from an unidentified newspaper article (probably Scottish, dated about 1940) which is understood to summarise Sir Thomas Urquhart’s report.
“James Crichton was born in Eliok, Dunfermline, on 19th August 1560. At 14 he passed his Bachelor of Arts degree at St. Andrew’s University, a year later getting his Master’s. He was a fellow pupil of King James under the celebrated George Buchanan. By 17 he was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syriac, Italian, French, Spanish, Flemish, German, Slavonic and Dutch as well as Scots and English. He could memorise long speeches at one hearing and long books in one reading. He was an accomplished horseman and expert at cards, sports, etc.. He was described by Sir Thomas Urquhart as “The paramour of the female sex and the paragon of his own.” He challenged the University of Paris, and various universities in Italy, to converse in any of 12 languages questions “in any science, liberal art, discipline, or faculty, whether practical or theoretic” that the University might set him. His challenge was taken up and he made good his boast. He joined the French Army for 3 years and covered himself with heroics and glory. He fought duels, including beating a famous swordsman “and handed over the winnings to three of those whom the gladiator had widowed”. When he was 25 he was passing an evening with the most beautiful lady of Mantua. Their room was stormed by masked swordsmen. Crichton killed six of them and had the seventh at his mercy but realised that he faced the Prince Vincenzo di Gonzaya, son of the Duke of Mantua. He handed over his sword, in token of his loyalty to the royal house. Vincenzo plunged the blade into Crichton’s heart. There was a magnificent funeral with elegies, threnodies, and epitaphs from all the scholars and poets of Europe. But the strange thing is that he left behind no evidence of his intellectual grandeur, but a few mediocre Latin verses and some Italian poems of no importance whatever. His admirability rests entirely upon hearsay.”

Produced by Peter Barns-Graham, Stirnet Limited. Added 22.01.07, previously released 14.09.04 within ‘Stirnet Treasures’.

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02. JOHN NAPIER, “MARVELOUS MERCHISTON” (1550-1617, inventor of logarithms, polymath)    Napier1
John Napier is best known as the inventor of logarithms – a means of showing the relationship between numbers which, along with decimal notation which he also made popular, enabled people to carry out complicated calculations that would otherwise take too long to be practicable. Without his work, not only might people such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton not have been able to complete or prove their discoveries but also navigation around the world would have continued to be hampered by the inability of explorers to work out easily (and so with much less risk of error) where they were. He also developed one of the world’s first mechanical means of multiplication and division, which became known as Napier’s ‘Rods’ or ‘Bones’, which was in effect a calculator. However, he was interested in more than just mathematics. Whilst his interests included theology, which was the subject of many of his writings, Napier’s ability to think laterally led him to many practical innovations – including the discovery that putting salt on fields would not only kill weeds but also fertilise the soil. He was also interested in developing military devices to protect his country and sketched ideas, often amazingly similar to the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci, such as precursors of tanks, submarines and even laser-guns (using mirrors to focus the Sun on enemy ships). Like many very clever people of his time, Napier was held in awe by many of those around him, some thinking he was a wizard. The following story about him (which was found on shows how reputations can sometimes be turned to good use. Napier was trying to find out which of his servants had been stealing from him. Each servant was ordered to go into a darkened room and stroke a cockerel that had been put there. Napier said that the bird would crow when the guilty one touched it. The servants each went into the room, and then came out, but the bird remained silent. Nevertheless, Napier stunned the household by immediately identifying the culprit. It was not sorcery. All Napier had done was to put soot on the cockerel’s feathers. The innocent servants all had black on their hands but the guilty one’s hands were clean because he had been afraid to touch the bird.

Produced by Peter Barns-Graham, Stirnet Limited. Added 22.01.07, previously released 14.09.04 within ‘Stirnet Treasures’.