The Papers of George Boole, F.R.S. (1815-1864)

Biographical Sketch

George Boole (2 November 1815 – 8 December 1864) was an English mathematician and philosopher, most recognized as the inventor of Boolean Logic, which is the basis of modern digital computer logic. He was awarded the first Royal Medal in mathematics for his 1844 On a General Method in Analysis, published in the Transactions of the Royal Society, and was in 1849 appointed first Professor of Mathematics at the Queen's College in Cork (now University College Cork).

Born in 1815 to Mary Ann Joyce (1780-1854) and John Boole (1777-1848) in Lincoln, England, Boole was the son of parents of modest means. His father, a cobbler by trade, had an abiding love of science, literature and mathematics much to the detraction, and ultimate collapse, of his business affairs. George Boole being a deeply religious man had intended as a young man to enter the Ministry but was forced owing to his family's circumstances to teaching, working in Doncaster, Waddington and Liverpool before establishing his own school in Lincoln at age 19.

Though Boole published little except his mathematical and logical works, his acquaintance with general literature was wide and deep. From an early age he was fluent in Greek and Latin, later teaching himself French and Italian so that he might understand continental developments in mathematics. He continued to create new and translated poetical works throughout his life, coming first to fame in 1830 when, as a fourteen year old, the Lincoln Herald published his translation from the Greek of Meleager’s Ode to the Spring. It caused controversy as it was thought too good to be a ‘juvenile production’. His reflections upon scientific, philosophical and religious questions are contained in four addresses upon The Genius of Sir Isaac Newton, The Right Use of Leisure , The Claims of Science and The Social Aspect of Intellectual Culture, which he delivered and printed at different times.

Having though his own self-education and industry secured himself a situation of relative comfort Boole was active in attempting to raise the societal and educational prospects of those less fortunate. His involvement with Lincoln's Mechanics’ Institute, whose object was the ‘…cultivation of Experimental, Natural and Moral Philosophy; and of knowledge in all departments—avoiding Political and controversial Divinity, and also the Lincoln Early Closing Association, whose aim was to reduce the working day for many to explore, in leisure, their continued education was consuming, though not to the detriment of his mathematical research.

Boole's father died in December 1848 before the decision had been made concerning the Irish chairs but an announcement came in August 1849 that Boole was to become the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College, Cork, and he took up the position in November. Augustus De Morgan (1806 – 1871), Philip Kelland (1808 – 1879), Arthur Cayley (1821 – 1895), William Thomson (Lord Kelvin, 1824 - 1907) are amongst several distinguished mathematicians who wrote in strong support of his appointment. He taught at the University for the rest of his life, gaining a reputation as an outstanding and dedicated teacher. However the position was not without difficulty as the College became embroiled in religious disputes.

The personal character of Boole inspired all his friends with the deepest esteem. He was marked by true modesty, and his life was given to the single-minded pursuit of truth. Though he received a medal from the Royal Society for his memoir of 1844, the Keith Medal from the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Dublin, he neither sought nor received the ordinary rewards to which his discoveries would entitle him.

On 8 December 1864, in the full vigour of his intellectual powers, he died of an attack of fever, ending in effusion on the lungs. He is buried in Blackrock, a suburb of Cork.

In 1855 George Boole married Mary Everest (1832-1916), daughter of the minister Thomas Everest and niece to Colonel Sir George Everest (1790-1866) a Welsh engineer after whom Mount Everest is named. They had five daughters:

  • Mary, who married the mathematician and author Charles Howard Hinton and had three children (Howard, William and Joan)
  • Margaret, whose son Geoffrey Ingram Taylor became a mathematician and a Fellow of the Royal Society
  • Alicia, who made important contributions to four-dimensional geometry
  • Lucy, a chemist
  • Ethel Lilian, who married the Polish scientist and revolutionary Wilfrid Michael Voynich and is the author of the novel The Gadfly.