George Boole

booleGeorge Boole ( 2 November 1815 – 8 December 1864) was an English mathematician, philosopher and logician. He worked in the fields of differential equations and algebraic logic, and is now best known as the author of The Laws of Thought. As the inventor of the prototype of what is now called Boolean logic, which became the basis of the modern digital computer, Boole is regarded in hindsight as a founder of the field of computer science. Boole said,

… no general method for the solution of questions in the theory of probabilities can be established which does not explicitly recognise … those universal laws of thought which are the basis of all reasoning …

George Boole’s father, John Boole (1779–1848), was a tradesman in Lincoln and gave him lessons. He had an elementary school education, but little further formal and academic teaching. William Brooke, a bookseller in Lincoln, may have helped him with Latin; which he may also have learned at the school of Thomas Bainbridge. He was self-taught in modern languages. At age 16 Boole became the breadwinner for his parents and three younger siblings, taking up a junior teaching position in Doncaster, at Heigham’s School. He taught briefly in Liverpool.

Detail of stained glass window in Lincoln Cathedral dedicated to George Boole.

Detail of stained glass window in Lincoln Cathedral dedicated to George Boole.

Boole participated in the local Mechanics Institute, the Lincoln Mechanics’ Institution, which was founded in 1833. Edward Bromhead, who knew John Boole through the Institution, helped George Boole with mathematics books; and he was given the calculus text of Sylvestre François Lacroix by Rev. George Stevens Dickson, of St Swithin Lincoln. Without a teacher, it took him many years to master calculus.

At age 19 Boole successfully established his own school at Lincoln. Four years later he took over Hall’s Academy, at Waddington, outside Lincoln, following the death of Robert Hall. In 1840 he moved back to Lincoln, where he ran a boarding school.

Boole became a prominent local figure, an admirer of John Kaye, the bishop. He took part in the local campaign for early closing. With E. R. Larken and others he set up a building society in 1847. He associated also with the Chartist Thomas Cooper, whose wife was a relation.

From 1838 onwards Boole was making contacts with sympathetic British academic mathematicians, and reading more widely. He studied algebra in the form of symbolic methods, as these were understood at the time, and began to publish research papers.

Boole’s status as mathematician was recognised by his appointment in 1849 as the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork in Ireland. He met his future wife, Mary Everest, there in 1850 while she was visiting her uncle John Ryall who was Professor of Greek. They married some years later. He maintained his ties with Lincoln, working there with E. R. Larken in a campaign to reduce prostitution.

boole graveBoole was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857; and received honorary degrees of LL.D. from the University of Dublin and Oxford University.

On 8 December 1864, Boole died of an attack of fever, ending in pleural effusion. He was buried in the Church of Ireland cemetery of St Michael’s, Church Road, Blackrock (a suburb of Cork City). There is a commemorative plaque inside the adjoining church. Edited from George Boole

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