In this lesson, you’ll learn about George Boole, a famous mathematician who made significant contributions in algebra. We’ll explore his life and logic and learn what led us to name a branch of mathematics after him.

Biography

George Boole was born on November 2, 1815 in Lincoln, England to pretty humble beginnings. His dad was a not-so-successful cobbler. George’s father daydreamed of doing something meaningful in science or math while he stitched together leather shoes. As a typical working class to success story goes, George began studying to be a tradesman like his father at a young age.

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George Boole
George Boole

Not surprisingly, his father’s unfulfilled passion for math was not lost on his son; and young George excelled at the mere glimmer of academic instruction. A friend of the family taught him Latin, which he mastered by age 12. George went on to teach himself Greek, German, Italian, and French. In fact, he was so good at Greek, his work translating Meleager’s ‘Ode to Spring’ was published in the newspaper when George was only 14. It caused a ruckus of disbelief. And though his family could only afford vocational school, George taught himself what they could not afford.

By age 16, this child of a daydreaming cobbler, whose business eventually collapsed, was an assistant teacher who financially supported his parents and whole family. George’s love of education seemed insatiable, as he consumed Newton, Laplace, Lacroix, and Lagrange (pretty much all the mathematics of his day). He held a few other teaching positions and even opened his own school at age 19. Then in 1838, he took over Hall’s Academy in Waddington, which is near his home of Lincoln.

The year 1854, and the following decade, were fruitful years for Boole. He published his key paper on algebraic logic titled: ‘An Investigation into the Laws of Thought, on Which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities’. It was based on the work of Leibniz. George married Mary Everest in 1855; yes, she was the niece of the guy the famous mountain is named after. They had five children, hopefully none of whom ended up as daydreaming cobblers. George went on to write several papers that advanced ideas in mathematics and logic.

But sadly, George’s story doesn’t end well. There seemed a curious absence of logic when, at age 49, he walked two miles in a downpour to give a lecture. He then went ahead and taught class in his damp clothes. Things might have worked out, but his wife also thought a damp bed might make him better. So we lost George Boole on a cold December in 1864, just when things were looking grand.

A Branch of Science in Boole’s Name

You’re probably wondering why this guy is so fondly remembered. Well, a branch of mathematics called Boolean algebra is named after him. Boolean algebra is the basis of nearly every computer gadget out there. Boole realized that algebra could solve some of the hard problems of philosophy, like how to make logical decisions when things are really fuzzy or complex. It’s called linguistic algebra, which simplifies logical propositions by separating two things with a logical operator, the main examples being AND, OR, and NOT. Just remember, Boolean algebra is how computers can figure out material you and I would find way too hard. And they do it using just 1s and 0s and Boolean logic.

There’s more too. You may have heard of Boole’s inequality, which is pretty important when you study probability. And if you’ve taken any algebra, you may be familiar with the distributive property. Boole discovered this as an underlying property of numbers, without which many equations could not be easily solved. Figure 1 may help you recall the distributive property.

Figure 1: Example of the distributive property
distributive property

A Timeline about George Boole

George Boole Timeline
Geogre Boole Timeline

Lesson Summary

Well, that about covers it. Let’s review what we learned so it’s easier to recall. George Boole was born in 1815 to a poor cobbler, but surprised everyone by going boldly where no shoemaker had gone before. He became a teacher by age 16, was published in the prestigious Cambridge Mathematical Journal, won a gold medal from the Royal Society, and became Chair and First Professor of Mathematics at Queens College, Ireland. George published several papers on mathematics. He married Mary Everest and died nine years later of a cold at age 49.

He is famous for Boole’s inequality in the field of probability and the distributive property in algebra. But most of all, a branch of math is named in his honor. It simplifies logical propositions by separating two things with a logical operator; AND, OR, or NOT.

So the next time you’re using your technological gizmo, remember where logic and computer functions come from. George would say it’s the logical thing to do.