George Boole: how a Victorian mathematics don became a digital pioneer
George Boole’s work on mathematical logic paved the way for smartphones.
With a steely glare, a starched collar and a pair of truly prodigious sideburns, he is the digital pioneer you have almost certainly never heard of. Now, 200 years after his birth, George Boole is finally to get the acclaim he deserves.
A prodigy with a penchant for self-education, Boole was a teenage schoolteacher who rose to become the first professor of mathematics at what is now University College Cork, in 1849. Along the way he penned two seminal books: The Mathematical Analysis of Logic in 1847 and later, in 1854, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought.
While his work has contributed to many branches of mathematics, arguably his greatest achievement was devising an algebraic approach to logic, using a system based on the numbers 1 and 0. More than 70 years after his death, the method was used to develop electronic switching circuits for telephone exchanges and Boolean logic is now at work in everything from smartphones to smart cars.
In a year of celebrations marking Boole’s bicentenary on 2 November, the Victorian pioneer will take to the screen as part of a digital arts festival in his home city of Lincoln. Narrated by Jeremy Irons, The Genius of George Boole charts the course of Boole’s life, from his humble origins as the son of a scientifically minded shoemaker to his enduring legacy in our digital age.
“The application of his research has been vital in all new technologies today, and he hasn’t been recognised,” says Virginia Teehan, director of cultural projects at University College Cork, who commissioned the documentary as part of the university’s Boole200 celebrations.
Boole’s life was cut short – after teaching in rain-soaked clothes, he developed a fever and died at 49. Some members of his family believed that his wife’s faith in “a certain crank doctor who advocated cold water cures for everything” hastened his demise.
Beginning on 23 October, the 10-day Frequency festival will also encompass an ongoing Boole-related exhibition and walking tour of Lincoln as well as shining a spotlight on his inspirations.
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“He felt called by God to explain mathematically the laws of the world,” says Canon Dr Mark Hocknull, of Lincoln Cathedral and the University of Lincoln, who will be delivering a lecture on Boole. Indeed, says Hocknull, religion offered the Victorian professor a sizable challenge. “[In the Laws of Thought] he wants to prove logically the existence of God.”
The festival will also feature a wide range of digital art, performances and events on the theme of liberation – a concept that Uzma Johal, one of the festival’s directors, believes subtly reflects Boole’s legacy, as well as celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, an original version of which is housed in Lincoln Cathedral. “If Boole hadn’t done what he had done, the freedom that is afforded us in terms of our creativity and in terms of our daily lives, would not be the way it is,” she says.
But Hocknull hopes that the combined efforts of University College Cork and the University of Lincoln to blow Boole’s trumpet will do more than merely recast his role in history.
“The world that he has spawned is becoming a very impersonal one: we can end up reduced to bits of data,” he says. “Maybe remembering Boole will remind us of the human dimension of technology – and the human dimension of life.”
The Frequency Festival of Digital Culture, a collaboration between Threshold Studios, the University of Lincoln and other partners, runs from 23 October to 1 November