July 19, 2013 10.08 am This story is over 100 months old

Lincoln’s important technological link

Boole logic: Cory Santos looks into one of Lincoln’s most important figures and the links to maths, modern technology, and even Mount Everest.

George Boole

George Boole

The city of Lincoln has long been associated with great men and women. From the ecclesiastical giants of St. Hugh and Robert Grosseteste, to great musicians, such as William Byrd, the famous Renaissance composer, and even actors, such as John Hurt, who attended school here.

One of the greatest names associated with Lincoln, however, was a self-taught teacher and mathematician, who would revolutionise logical thought: George Boole.

George Boole was born on Silver Street on November 2, 1815. The son of a local merchant, having received only an elementary education and no further academic training, Boole began a strict regimen of self-education, becoming well versed in modern languages and Latin by his early teens.

By 16, he had become a teacher; first in Doncaster at Heigham’s School, and later in Liverpool, before returning home to Lincoln. By the age of 19, in 1835, Boole opened his own school, which he operated for four years, before briefly taking up a post as head of a school in Waddington.

Following this, in 1840, he opened a new boarding school, located at 3 Pottergate, which he ran for a number of years before his departure to Ireland.

Boole's school in Pottergate.

Boole’s school in Pottergate.

During his time as a teacher in Lincoln, Boole began an association with the Lincoln Mechanics Instituion, where with the help of Sir Edward Bromhead, a prominent mathematician and the Rev. George Stevens Dickson of St. Swithin’s Church, he began the long and arduous task of teaching himself calculus.

Following his mastery of calculus, Boole began to explore much deeper in mathematics, theorising and writing widely on probability, differential equations and other complex (and frankly confusing) areas, making many contacts in the academic world. The importance of his work, particularly what came to be known as Boolean logic (though this was much later, in 1854), earned him wide renown in the maths world, and in 1848, he was made the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, in Cork, a position he held until his death in 1864.

Now I am sure that many of you are thinking, “a local, self-made and taught lad, found success in life and was a great mathematician. So what is so important about Boolean logic?”

To put it simply, Boolean logic is the foundation for modern computer programming. An advancement on algebraic thinking, instead of variables being numbers, in Boolean logic the variables are expressed as either true or false. These variables are often expressed as either ‘1’ or ‘0’, the very familiar binary language utilized by modern computing. Without the ground breaking work of George Boole, the modern world would likely look much different technologically.

The logical and mathematical developments of George Boole make him truly an inspiring and celebrated Lincolnite (a crater on the Moon is named in his honour), but his familial connections also provide some rather quirky (and loose) connections between Lincoln and the wider world.

His wife, Mary, for example was the niece of George Everest, the surveyor-general of India, who charted much of the Himalayas and for whom Mt. Everest is named. His grandchild, Sebastian Hinton, invented the jungle gym in Chicago in 1920 and Sebastian’s daughter (Boole’s great granddaughter) Joan Hinton, was a renowned nuclear physist and worked on the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb.

So there you have it. George Boole: self-taught man, mathematical and logical innovator, professor and more importantly, Lincoln’s link to the world’s tallest mountain and the jungle gym.

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Cory Santos is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Lincoln who specialises in the social history of Britain during the Second World War. Besides his main research focuses, he also enjoys local history and the interesting tales it often turns up.