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Monday, 2 November 2015

2 November 1815: George Boole Professor of Mathematics University College Cork 1849-1864 & father of digital thought was born on this day. He was a child prodigy, self-taught linguist and practical scientist, philosopher and teacher.

He was born in Lincoln, England, the son of a struggling shoemaker. Boole was forced to leave school at the age of sixteen and never attended a university. He taught himself languages, natural philosophy and mathematics. After his father’s business failed he supported the entire family by becoming an assistant teacher, eventually opening his own boarding school in Lincoln. He began to produce original mathematical research and, in 1844, he was awarded the first gold medal for mathematics by the Royal Society.

Boole was deeply interested in the idea of expressing the workings of the human mind in symbolic form, and his two books on this subject, The Mathematical Analysis of Logic (1847) and An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854) form the basis of today’s computer science and electronic circuitry. Much of the ‘new mathematics’ now studied originated in his ground breaking studies – set theory, binary numbers and Boolean algebra were areas wher he led the way.

In 1849, Boole was appointed first professor of mathematics in Ireland’s new Queen’s College (now University College) Cork and taught and worked there until his tragic and premature death in 1864.

Boole was a creative and unorthodox thinker who found a way to write logical questions as algebraic equations. He thought of himself as a logician rather than a mathematician yet, in a series of publications in the 1840s and 1850s, he opened a whole new direction for mathematics.

A century later, the American mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon, himself acknowledged as the ‘father of information theory’, used Boole’s concepts, and especially his ‘Boolean algebra’, to design the first digital circuits. By reducing answers to x and y as set out by Boole it was possible for Shannon to develop the concepts to build the first digitally based machines. Today these are more commonly known as 0 & 1 binary numbers which are used to reflect true or false values in computer systems. 

However in late 1864 Boole one day walked for miles in the pouring rain to get to the Cork College and came down with pluersy. His wife tried to help but made matters worse by pouring cold water over him to cure him! He died on 8 December of that year.

Boole’s funeral took place on December 12th, to St Michael’s Church of Ireland in Ballintemple, Co Cork and according to a report in the Cork Examiner the following day, his cortege was followed by “serried files of students” in their gowns and caps.

Today, UCC lays claim to be Boole’s academic home. There’s a library named in Boole’s honour and, in the Aula Maxima, a fine stained-glass window erected in his memory by public subscription shortly after his death.

As one of the most important scientists to have ever worked in Ireland, Boole effectively laid the foundations of the entire Information Age while working from UCC. So it’s fair to say that without George Boole, there’d be no Google!