George Boole - the Lincoln genius

Written by Eileen Harrison, Lincoln Cathedral Guide, for the Information Desk at Lincoln Cathedral. 1993.

George Boole (1815–1864)

Mathematician and Philosopher
Born:  Lincoln, Lincolnshire

Today, George Boole is rightly regarded as one of the founding fathers of computing and information technology. George Boole is the unsung hero of the Information Revolution. It was his genius that set the scene for all the technological innovation that we take for granted today, from digital recordings and television through to the Internet itself. Eileen Harrison's article sets the record straight.

After the death of George Boole in 1864, his Lincoln friends decided they would like to raise a local memorial to him, equal to that in Cork. A meeting was held at the Guildhall on 11th January 1865, chaired by Alderman Shaw, and attended by Archdeacon Larkin and other notables. A list was opened for the purpose of providing a memorial window in the Cathedral, and a further memorial in the City (if funds should permit). £139.17s was donated, but another £50 was needed; this was collected gradually and window n31 in the North Aisle was inserted.

This is known as the "Teaching Window". The story of "the calling of Samuel" in the lower medallion was suggested by George's wife, as it was one of his favourite passages in the Bible. The centre medallion is of Christ with the teachers in the temple and the top one of Christ teaching "Render unto Caesar".

Beneath the window is a brass plaque: "In memory of George Boole, Dr of Laws, of Lincoln. A man of acutist intellect and manifold learning, who, being specially exercised in the severer sciences, diligently explored the recesses of mathematics and happily illuminated them by his writings. He was carried off by an untimely death in 1864."

Sadly, insufficient money was raised for a City memorial.

Recently, with the growth of interest in computer science, dust has stirred and world-wide interest is making us more aware of our 19th Century genius.

The early years

George was born in 1815 at 34 Silver Street, which is now occupied by Langleys, the Solicitors. He was the eldest son of John Boole, a shoemaker. George's mother, when complimented on her brilliant son, said "but you haven't met his father".

Boole Snr had a passion for science and was a keen student of optics. He taught his son mathematics and George was so keen that by the age of seven he could be lost to the world in a mathematical problem, as other children might be in a story book. Before George's 11th birthday his father John wrote in the 6th Book of Leslie's Geometry, "George finished this book 1st November 1826".

At eighteen months George went to Mrs Holmes' Dame School (to keep him out of mischief). He then went to the Misses Clarke's school for families of respectable tradesmen, staying one year. He was missing one day and found in the town (still young enough to wear frocks and pinafores) spelling difficult words to amuse a crowd who were showering him with pennies as a reward. He went next to Mr Gibson's school in Mint Lane, and transferred at seven to a primary school of the National Society.

George soon absorbed all this school had to offer. The family was too poor to pay grammar school fees, so George went on to Mr Bainbridge's Academy on Fish Hill (now Michaelgate). He made great progress in his studies and was soon assisting at lessons and correcting exercises.

Widening education

John wished his son to have a balanced knowledge and encouraged him to help with the construction of cameras, kaleidoscopes, telescopes and sundials. One story indicates that they even attempted to build a calculating machine. This background of practical science encouraged George, who was to become one of the greatest of pure mathematicians, but he never lost sight of the fact that maths came into being in the search for practical scientific solutions.

He was a good allrounder. He read widely of history, geography, science, but he loved novels and poetry. John also introduced his son to literature and the classics, and when George surpassed his father's knowledge of Latin, a tutor was found for him, William Brooke, a bookseller and printer of 290 High Street. William became a lifelong friend and allowed George the run of his extensive library.

Later George added Greek to his studies and was completely self-taught in this field. On May 28th 1830 the local paper published a translation from the Greek poet Meleager, earning George the local reputation of a boy genius.

George was also self-taught in French, German and Italian, and was able to extend his knowledge beyond that of other students, by reading Continental scientific publications before they appeared in English translation.

Family influences

His mother's influence was as strong as that of his father. She taught her family good temper and love of truth and beauty, and insisted that they were kind and gentle. In her opinion, character should be developed by the addition of music and art, and by shared family activities.

The family were reared in the love and reverence of God and were all members of the Anglican Church. George was interested in theology and the spiritual life, and some of his writings suggest an ambition to enter the Church. He proceeded with his theological studies, but the logical mind found it difficult to accept some of the doctrines, particularly that of the Trinity. His conscience would not allow him to accept the full 39 Articles, so entry to the Church was not possible for him.

At an early age his eyesight suffered because of excessive reading.

He wrote of his almost photographic memory, describing it as "an arrangement of the mind for every fact and idea, which I can find at once, as if it were in a well-ordered set of drawers".

Father's voluntary work with the Savings Bank and the Mechanics' Institute meant neglect of the shoemaking, and his business failed, but despite shortage of money the Boole family had a background of a happy marriage and loving parents.

Early employment

George, at 16, now had to seek employment. He took a post as usher at Mr Heigham's school in Doncaster (a very respectable Methodist establishment). He was much respected for his attainments, but parents learned of his religious views. They prayed for the sacrilegious master at prayer meetings, and the Headmaster was forced to ask George to convert to Methodism or resign. George resigned.

He now began a more serious study of Applied Maths. It is considered he had the advantage over university students, as he read and reread every article until it was fully understood; this without a tutor to keep his research in the appointed channels. By this time he was the sole support of his family (mother, father, sister and two brothers).

His next post was in Liverpool at the school of Mr Marrot, who had published books on mechanics. George enjoyed the stimulating academic company, but left after six months, as he could not stand "the chaotic and gross domestic arrangements".

Though not yet twenty, he opened his own small school for young boys and girls in Free School Lane. It was a success educationally and financially, but still a small income on which to support all the family. Here he developed his educational theories and wrote an essay on education.

Mathematics and the classics

Mathematics were taught by practical demonstrations and balance was provided by the study of language, literature and the classics. The study of grammar was simultaneous with the study of reasoning, and he believed that language should be taught through speech, then the laws of grammar introduced.

He insisted that a knowledge of geography was essential to the understanding of history, and that nothing be committed to memory before it was fully understood. A clear handwriting was essential.

The young were to be taught habits of Industry, Integrity, and mutual kindness, and to understand the distinction between right and wrong. They were to be shown a reverence to sacred things, and he considered moral teaching was the most difficult of a teacher's tasks, but the greatest in importance. How the Methodists missed out!

Boole enjoyed this period of his life and earned the respect of his pupils and the townsfolk alike.

When in 1838 Robert Hall of Waddington Academy died, George Boole was asked to take charge. This was a large day and boarding school for wealthy farmers' sons. George decided to move the whole family to Waddington, where they all helped in the running of the school. His finances were much improved and money worries eased. However, he did not own the school and when in 1840 premises became available at 3 Pottergate, he decided to open his own academy.

The whole of his family moved back to Lincoln and helped with the new school. George continued his practice of working as a schoolmaster by day and studying late into the night.

Helping others

Having achieved a place in society by his own efforts, George did all he in his power to help others. He was a member of the Committee who founded the Home for Penitent Women, to rescue young girls forced into prostitution.

"Here I found that in early Victorian times there were 30 houses of ill-repute in Lincoln, mainly in the Castle Dyke area. This was a hot-bed of crime and not legally under the jurisdiction of the Watch. The Mayor even admitted that there was more debauchery in Lincoln than any other town of its size."

Following in his father's footsteps, George gave much support to the Mechanics' Institute, where he gave many lectures and classes. The only game allowed there was chess, and George influenced the Committee to keep the library non-fiction. This Institute was very daring for its day, as it allowed ladies, if introduced by a member.

George was at this time of his studies in touch with the Analytical Society. Sir Edward Bromhead of Thurlby was a mathematical graduate of Cambridge, and a member of this Society. He lent George many books and did commentaries on his early research. George submitted papers to the Cambridge Journal and the Editor realised he was encouraging an unknown genius.

At this stage, George felt that he was isolated as a schoolmaster and that he now needed academic surroundings and stimulus. He thought of taking a Cambridge mathematics degree. Editor Gregory pointed out that to do so he would have to abandon original research and that such a course would be too expensive for a man supporting a family.

University life

In the 1830s/40s, however, the Government was planning new universities in Ireland, with a view to providing balanced education for a population with conflicting religious views. George applied for a classical professorship, but Roman Catholic opposition to "Godless Colleges" held up appointments, and after a lapse of time George applied again, this time for a chair in mathematics, and in August 1849 the Board of Electors appointed him to Queen's College, Cork.

As George had no degree, he forwarded interesting testimonials to Cork, some from local clergy, one from a student on a crammer's course, one from the Editor of the Cambridge Journal, and others from eminent scientists. One was sent from the City of Lincoln: "They had much pleasure in bearing their unaffected testimonial to the great respectability and correctness of Mr Boole's private character and habits. He is highly qualified for the important and responsible position he seeks to occupy". This was signed by the Mayor, Aldermen and several Magistrates.

The City was delighted at his success and wished to give him signs of their goodwill, and a presentation was arranged to take place at the White Hart. Tickets at 2/6d each included malt liquor and supper at 8 pm precisely.

A silver inkstand costing £20 was presented, together with a collection of books worth £30 (George's professorship was paid at £250 pa). The Mechanics' Institute collected for their own gift and presented him with the expensive Johnson's Atlas of Physical Geography.

Before leaving for Ireland, George made provision for his mother.

George settled in his environment, helping to form the new university, and in 1851 he was elected Dean of Science. He enjoyed his independence and financial freedom.

George and Mary

In 1850 he met Mary Everest for the first time. She was visiting her uncle, the Vice-President. George was 35, Mary 18. Her interest in science had been sparked by another uncle, George Everest the explorer, and she studied maths with her father. When she was in Cork, Boole was asked to give her a little instruction in acoustics. After she returned home, they corresponded and the friendship grew.

In 1855 her father died and Mary was left destitute. George proposed to take over her care and they were married that year. George suggested that Mary might like to attend college lectures, which she did. Local ladies disapproved and Mary desisted, but ..... the senior class migrated to the Boole home.

In 1857 George was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

The marriage was blessed with five daughters and the family moved to a larger property further from the College. George was a modern husband and father, sharing shopping and children. He planned an emancipated education for his girls.

From the start Mary had been concerned with his health, both the eye disease and the hereditary disease of the lungs, which was aggravated by the damp climate. On 24th November 1864 George walked to college in heavy rain, lectured in his wet clothes and caught cold. This infected his lungs and he died on 8th December 1864.

George Boole A flattering portrait of Boole, drawn shortly after his death
From The Illustrated London News

The College erected a great east window to his memory and in modern times there is a great Boole library and Mathematics Scholarship.

In 1967 a moon crater was named after him.

On 7th November 1964 there was a learned gathering in the City, and a grand dinner attended by Geoffrey Taylor, grandson, and Professor Broadbent of Greenwich. These eminent gentlemen unveiled the plaque on 3 Pottergate. (Reported in the Lincolnshire Echo 8th November 1964.)

George was well in advance of his time - probably of ours. His mathematical theories now hold sway. Computer science follows his reasoning and electrical engineers his theories, even satellite pictures stem from his work.

So far his fame has rested on his mathematical theories, but his wife indicated these were not separated from his views on religion and the reasoning of the mind. If these theories are taken up, where will the reasoning of a self-taught Lincoln boy lead the world?

Further reading

"The Calculus of Logic" by George Boole
George Boole, his life and work. Desmond MacHale
Boole, by T A A Broadbent
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 2, 1970
Men of Mathematics, 1937, reprinted 1961. E T Bell
George Boole
An Investigation of the Laws of Thought on which are Founded
The Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities
Dover Publications. Reprinted 1858 and 1973
ISBN: 0486600289
George Boole. 1815-1864
George Boole: selected manuscripts on logic and its philosophy
[edited by] Ivor Grattan-Guinness, Gerrard Bornet
(Science networks historical studies; v. 20)
ISBN 3-7643-5456-9 (Basel)
ISBN 0-8176-5456-9 (Boston)
Link needed to replace the Boole Tour of Lincoln information.

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