To celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, there’s a timeline exhibition “The Life and Legacy of George Boole,” running in Lincoln. It’s free and open to all at the Great Central Warehouse Library on the University of Lincoln’s Brayford campus until Friday 11th September, and in October it will move to Lincoln Cathedral.
So who was George Boole? My friend, former colleague and co-director of the Lincoln Boole Foundation, Dave Kenyon, has written a timely guest post for us, all about Lincolnshire’s Victorian Digital Hero:
George Boole, Lincolnshire’s forgotten genius is 200 years old this year. Unbeknownst to most of us, he’s responsible for the ‘digital DNA’ of everyday life.
Most readers interested in Lincolnshire will probably know that 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Similarly, most will be aware of Sir Isaac Newton as the county’s most illustrious son. But very few will know of the bicentenary of George Boole, the Lincoln man who has had most recent worldwide impact. He invented “Boolean Logic” which is the binary system at the heart of silicon chips and all things digital. As if that wasn’t enough, he was the youngest and poorest winner of the Royal Society’s Gold Medal for a hundred years. To cap that off, he also laid some of the foundations for ‘Pure Maths’ and gave us many aspects of calculus used daily by scientists and technologists of every type.
Acknowledged by those aware of the roots of modern science, a crater on the moon is named after Boole. An Irish university rejoices in dedicated stained glass in its Great Hall, and Lincoln Cathedral has a full length window celebrating his greatness. Even so, most Lincolnites, let alone the wider public, have never heard of him. Yet if a thing is digital, or has a digital aspect, it benefits from Boole. Mobile phone to parking meter, television to MRI scanner and almost everything in between, George is your man!
George was descended from Lincolnshire yeoman farming stock. Indeed, “Boole” is a variant spelling of “Bull”. His father John came from the Booles of Saxilby, just outside Lincoln. However, like his brothers, John left farming in the 1790s for less physical, more lucrative and more reliable work. He entered a 14 year training to become a Master Shoemaker, one of the most elevated of the ancient trades.
In 1807 he set up shop in Lincoln and in 1815 he and his wife Mary were blessed with the first of their four children. Fearing George would not live long, they immediately Christened him at the Church of St Swithin just around the corner.
Even before infant school age, George showed early intellectual prowess. On street corners he would show off his spelling ability for pennies. Mostly he was self-taught, encouraged by his brilliant father who was self-taught in most things too. By age 10 George had achieved the equivalent maths level to a 16 year old nowadays. However, in his early to mid teens his real love was languages and he taught himself Latin, Greek and French (by his mid 20s he was also proficient in German, Italian and Hebrew).
Unfortunately, his translation of an ancient Greek poem, published in the local press, was accused of plagiarism. It took months for him to be fully exonerated. After this, at age 15, he turned to maths as his intellectual mainstay.
GROWING UP FAST
Taking up advanced maths coincided with his father’s business collapsing and George becoming the sole breadwinner for the family. He followed his uncle’s example into teaching, despite having no qualifications himself! First George went to a Doncaster Methodist school. Whilst there, he had the flash of God-given insight that sowed the seeds for his logical insights fifteen years later. Then he was sacked for not being suitably pious! (George was a secret Anti-trinitarian who didn’t believe in the deity of Christ or a Holy Spirit. This is very similar to Sir Isaac Newton’s beliefs.) He then spent a term teaching in Liverpool before returning to teach in Lincolnshire at Robert Hall’s Academy for young gentlemen just outside Lincoln.
“George Boole Bear has his ‘Laws of Thought’ insight, aged 16 in Doncaster”
At this time, John Boole, George’s father was working with Sir E.F. Bromhead, on both the Lincoln Savings Bank and the Lincoln Mechanics’ Institute. Bromhead was a gifted mathematician who was known and respected by all the top British mathematicians of the day, (including Babbage and Lovelace, now famous for their work on mechanised computing). Bromhead encouraged George to continue with advanced mathematics, lending him books and discussing difficult ideas. Later on, when the time was right, he introduced Boole to key mathematicians and helped him produce suitable manuscripts for publication. He provided a similar mentoring to another local self-taught mathematician, George Green, who laid some of the foundations for quantum mechanics.
It was probably Bromhead who was behind George being invited to give a public lecture about Sir Isaac Newton in the Mechanics’ Institute in 1835 when he was only 19. This was an assured debut. He appraised Newton’s work like a peer, not a teenager without qualifications. He even criticised aspects of the great scientist’s work. This so impressed the intelligentsia of the city that his text was published and after that, everyone knew, George was a homegrown intellect to reckon with.
George first published his mathematical research in a top journal four years later at age 23. Five years later, his first long research paper was published by the Royal Institution and then awarded its highest honour, the Royal ‘Gold’ Medal; arguably the equivalent of a Nobel Prize (which hadn’t been inaugurated at the time).
George had undoubtedly arrived in the highest ranks of the intelligentsia, whilst still being without any formal qualifications and having to earn his family’s living, teaching the ‘Three Rs’ to sons of successful tradesmen. Teaching had become relatively lucrative for him. After some 18 months at Waddington, he opened his own school opposite the Mechanics’ Institute on Free School Lane (nowadays, next to the City Library). Then he went back to Waddington as Master of the Academy for a couple of years and in 1840 he set up his own academy behind the Cathedral at 3 Pottergate (still standing). As usual, his family moved in with him and in 1848, this is where his father died, aged 71. He is buried in the old cemetery less than 100 metres from his front door. Mary was buried beside him six years later.
BOOLEAN LOGIC UNLEASHED
In 1847 Boole published his first book, “The Mathematical Analysis of Logic”. This was in response to an argument between George’s good friend, Augustus De Morgan of London University, and William Hamilton, a Scottish Philosopher of Logic. In the book, Boole laid out for the first time his “Boolean Logic”. It showed that by breaking down complex arguments into a string of small and simple “True” or “False” statements it was possible to recombine them in ways analogous to addition, subtraction, and multiplication. The final result was one of mathematically certain truth or falsity, regardless of the length or complexity of the original argument. This is why he also called his system a “calculus of logic”.
He pointed out that within his logic, X2 was equal to X and in numbers, that was only true for zero and one. What’s more all of his logic also worked for zero and one. Almost 100 years later, the founders of modern electronic computing, Englishman Alan Turing and American Claude Shannon made use of Boole’s binary logic, putting it at the heart of calculation, memory, design and programming of their valve-based computers. It continues to play the same roles in silicon chips 75 years later.
Now it is amazingly microscopic transistors that act as on/off (true/false) switches arranged in sequence so as to make Boolean Logic ‘Gates’ which behave according to Boole’s 150 year old calculus. They make their Boolean ‘decisions’, of true or false, billions of times a second in modern digital equipment.
THE LINCOLNSHIRE LAD DOES WELL
George’s Royal Medal and his dozens of published research articles meant that despite his unorthodox religious views, his lack of qualifications and his lowly social status, many well-placed Victorian intellectuals believed he should have a Professorial post in a university. At the time, Lincoln was without a university and unfortunately, Oxford and Cambridge were closed shops at the time. Other ancient universities would’ve found his religious views unacceptable and London, which was new and disestablished, had DeMorgan in post. Luckily for George, Parliament decided to inaugurate three new University Colleges in Ireland the very year Boole published his Logic. Boole applied and eventually was made Professor of Mathematics at the Queen’s College Cork.
Boole left Lincoln in 1849, some two days before his 34th birthday. By this time his standing in the city was such that a large civic gathering was held to give him a good send off. Many of the great-and-good of Lincoln were there in the newly-built White Hart Inn. The Lord Mayor, Dr Snow, led the proceedings, he had presided over George’s birth almost exactly 34 years previously.
THE CORK YEARS
Once in Ireland, Boole found it difficult to be as prolific in his output as he’d managed in Lincoln. Notably, he did publish three more maths books. The first, in 1854, was to become his magnum opus “An Investigation of The Laws of Thought”. This revisited Boolean Logic and corrected one or two errors. Mostly he expanded upon his earlier work, especially by including probabilities. His other books were more like advanced textbooks, benefitting both from his experience of university teaching and his researches into the mathematics he taught, especially Calculus!
In the 1850s, Cork was some three times larger than Lincoln, the population was swelled by country people who had sought relief from the Potato Famine -or “Great Hunger”. Not long after he arrived in Cork, he met Mary Everest. She was the niece of George Everest, the man of mountain fame. After a long acquaintance, a short courting ensued and in 1855, just after his “Laws of Thought”, they were married. George had never previously settled down in Cork. The aftermath of the “Great Hunger” was all around him and the University’s politics alienated him from many aspects of his work. But married life made a big difference, especially when children followed at regular intervals over the next nine years, George and Mary had five daughters. Later, all his daughters married and so their accomplishments, and those of their children and grandchildren are not associated with the Boole name. This may go some way to explaining why there is no obvious intellectual legacy from George. In fact, his descendants include two more Fellows of the Royal Society, several other scientist/mathematicians and his youngest daughter was a revolutionary author whose boyfriend was the template for “James Bond”!
Working as a Professor of Mathematics gave Boole a better social position from which to receive recognition. He was awarded two honorary doctorates, from Dublin and from Oxford. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He would also have been recognised by the French Academy of Sciences if he hadn’t died suddenly at the early age of 49.
Walking was a passion for Boole and whilst walking the four miles to work one morning, he was caught in a torrential downpour and spent the day at work soaked to the skin. On returning home, he went to bed with a fever that became worse over the next two weeks. It’s been observed that his wife’s homeopathic ideas might not have helped George. Mary was brought up in Paris under the influence of Hahnemann, the inventor of modern homeopathy. She is reputed to have kept George damp (in compliance with homeopathic principles) for the first week or more of his illness. Eventually he died of pneumonia on the 8th of December 1864.
George’s colleagues and friends in Ireland soon memorialised him in a fine stained glass window in the college’s main hall. It took another couple of years for the citizens of Lincoln to donate enough for the stained glass window in the Cathedral which was erected in 1869. Neither of these memorials focuses on his Logic, because at the time its association with computing was four generations away and it meant little or nothing to most people. What was honoured was his outstanding intellect and his personal ‘goodness’.
In the 1930s, two more geniuses enter the story. First Alan Turing published a paper that proposed a scheme for a “Universal Machine” which could carry out any computable calculation. Then a few years later, Claude Shannon published a paper showing how on/off switches arranged to perform Boolean algebra could automatically carry out calculations. During WWII, these men met and agreed that Boolean Logic was to be at the heart of their computing research. Since then, Boole’s ideas have been at the heart of computer design and function. Because Boolean logic is both hard-wired into digital processing chips and is the medium of commands, stored data and calculated results in digital equipment, it can be metaphorically termed “The DNA of Digitality”.
In 2012 a local group was formed to try to promote the memory of George Boole, especially to those in Lincolnshire. This is “The Lincoln Boole Foundation“. They hope to work with others to create a lasting memorial to ‘The Grandfather of Digitality’ in the centre of Lincoln City. It is hoped that on November 2nd a memorial plaque will be unveiled on a plinth in the High Street. This would be less than 100 metres from where he was born and lived for the longest part of his life. It’s hoped that it might be possible to name that part of the High Street “The Boole Gate“.