May 7, 2023 12.00 pm This story is over 10 months old

George Boole: Lincoln’s self-taught mathematical genius who changed the world

The remarkable life of one of Lincoln’s finest

By Local Democracy Reporter

The digital capabilities of computers and smartphones would never have been possible if not for the genius innovation of one of Lincoln’s finest ever minds – George Boole.

George Boole is a glowing example of human ingenuity.

He never went to university and was largely self-taught in the field of mathematics, but that never held him back as he is now remembered as one of history’s most influential figures.

His Boolean logic of algebraic formula was the go-to method for processors, memory and programming that is now used in every mobile phone, computer and digital device.

Every website link we click, every page we open on a digital device, and every screen swipe, is possible due to the algorithmic work of George Boole’s mathematics in the 19th century.

So how did this Lincoln man, born on Silver Street, become such an impactful person in our history? This is the story of George Boole – the grandfather of the digital age.

Early beginnings

George Boole is one of the truly brilliant minds to have emerged from Lincoln. | Photo: Ellis Karran for The Lincolnite

George Boole was born at 34 Silver Street in Lincoln back in November 1815. The property no longer exists but was located near what is now best recognised as the former Circle nightclub.

He was christened at St Swithins Church and it was a minister at the church who encouraged his progression into mathematics, lending him a book on calculus.

His first lessons in mathematics came from his shoemaking tradesman father. This and a few years at local schools were his only education in mathematics beyond what he taught himself.

As his father’s business began to decline, Boole had to work as a teacher in village schools to support his family at just 16 years of age.

Inside Greyfriars. | Photo: City of Lincoln Council

By the time he had turned 20, George Boole had opened his own school in Lincoln on Free School Lane in 1834, close to the Lincoln Mechanics Institute where he lectured in the old Greyfriars Grammar School.

Another school founded by Boole was found on Pottergate near Lincoln Cathedral, where he completed his last teachings in Lincoln and won a Gold Medal from the Royal Society in 1844.

Becoming a legend

| Photo: Ellis Karran for The Lincolnite

Keen to further his mathematical skills, but without the access or facilities to do so in Lincoln, Boole made the decision to take up a professorship at Queen’s College Cork, in Ireland in 1849.

It was here where Boole met his wife and started a family, having five daughters.

Four years after his move to Ireland, Boole published his magnum opus – the masterpiece that would etch his name into history for all eternity – The Laws of Thought.

The book, which is a description of the practical concepts for an algebra of logic, has been described as the piece of work in which “pure mathematics” was discovered, and it is still in print to this day.

Boole would end his days in Cork and passed away prematurely on December 8, 1864 at just 49 years of age. He had contracted pneumonia during a three-mile walk from his home to Queen’s College in a rainstorm.

The impact of Boolean logic

| Photo: Ellis Karran for The Lincolnite

George Boole was recognised as a genius during his lifetime, but it took almost 100 years for his far-reaching implications to be fully understood and recognised.

Claude Shannon, an electronics engineer from America, noticed that Boole’s logic could be applied in producing electrical circuits – which began the digital revolution once and for all.

To this day, even the most advanced computers and electronic devices on the planet operate and depend on the Boolean logic drawn out in the 19th century.

His presence in Lincoln today

The George Boole statue in Lincoln. | Photo: Ellis Karran for The Lincolnite

It is difficult to roam around the city of Lincoln without finding some form of commemoration to George Boole, whether it be plaques in significant areas or even a recently erected statue of the mathematician.

A plaque has been placed at 3 Pottergate in Boole’s memory, near to the school he founded in the area.

As well as this, friends of Boole who remain in Lincoln raised funds to create a memorial inside Lincoln Cathedral – known as the Teaching Window.

| Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

The stained glass window is found in the fourth window of the cathedral’s north wall – and depicts the calling of Samuel (his favourite Bible passage), at the request of his widow.

Most recently, a large statue went up outside Lincoln railway station last year, showing Boole teaching two young children next to a plaque detailing the key aspects of his life.

In 2015, an Irish delegation and relatives of the mathematical trailblazer came to Lincoln as part of celebrations for Boole’s bicentenary, with an exhibition put on display at the University of Lincoln’s Great Central Warehouse Library – at the time.

From bicentenary celebrations for George Boole’s 200th birthday in 2015. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Visit Lincoln also has an interactive free Boole Trail around Lincoln, inviting tourists to take a trip around Lincoln while stopping off at significant parts of the city in Boole’s life story.

The trail includes stops at Lincoln Cathedral, Pottergate Arch, Steep Hill, Lincoln Central Library, The Greyfriars, St Swithins Church and more – it can be accessed via the Visit Lincoln website.

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