George Boole (1815 - 1864)

George Boole is now considered to be one of the founders of the information revolution, thanks to his work in algebra. His name is also immortalised in the moon crater named after him!

George Boole was born in the year of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Boole’s family were not rich enough to send him to school, so Boole taught himself classical and modern languages.

He first became interested in mathematics thanks to his father, who also taught him how to make optical instruments and devices (cameras, kaleidoscopes, telescopes and sundials).

Boole’s father was so proud of his son that he published an ode by Horace translated by Boole junior from Latin into English (other records say that it was a work by the Greek poet Meleager). It was so good that no one believed it had been translated by a 12 year old boy!

Boole did not go to university, as after his father died he was responsible for supporting his family. Instead he became an assistant teacher at a local Methodist school, although his Anglican views soon forced his resignation. He started to study applied maths seriously on his own, reading the works of Gauss, Laplace and Lagrange.

As the sole provider for his family, he opened his own school aged only 20 , and began to publish papers in mathematical journals. He soon became well known, receiving a medal from the Royal Society for his work on calculus.

He was especially interested in the study of logic in mathematics, and the analogy between logic and algebra.

He began work on what is known as Boolean algebra - which is still used today in the design of modern computers - internet search engines often use Boolean form when helping you search the internet.

Boole was a celebrated mathematician in his lifetime, and although he remained at Queens College (where he held the chair of mathematics), he was awarded honorary degrees from Dublin and Oxford, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857.

Boole was also deeply involved in the social issues of the day. He was a trustee of a shelter for young women; and lectured at the Mechanics’ Institute.

This was a radical institution that helped adults catch up on missing education, mostly because they came from a poor background but also women who were excluded from anything but basic education as children.

After his death, his wife (Mary, born Mary Everest, niece of Sir George Everest, the man who first conquered the mountain named after him) took on his ideas for the education of young children.

After walking in torrential rain Boole caught a severe cold. Unfortunately his wife believed that he should be treated in the same way that he caught the cold. So it was that Boole was put to bed and had buckets of cold water thrown over him (since he had become ill by getting soaked).

Unfortunately this kill or cure technique put an end to the eminent mathematician, and he died in 1864 aged only 49.

Boolean mathematics in action

Boole’s work led ultimately to the development of the computer you have in front of you - his algebra, led to the development of the key component that makes up a computer - the central processing unit (CPU).

The CPU is made up of a number of processing units that carry out arithmetic tasks. One such is the so-called ‘Half adder’ which takes two binary inputs and adds them together to give the sum and any necessary ‘carry’.

The reason for its name is that it cannot deal with a carry input alongside the two other inputs. However, several such units hooked up can. A Half adder is made up of AND gates (shown in red) and an INVERTER (which negates an input binary digit - shown in turquoise); it looks like this:

The inputs are X and Y; the outputs are S (the sum) and C (the carry).

Boolean algebra is also the algebra of sets and Venn diagrams. Here is an example:

|A\cup B|=|A|+|B|-|A\cap B|

Here, |A| stands for the number of elements in the set A.