George Boole, 1815-1864

George Boole was born 200 years ago on November 2, 1815, the son of a shoemaker in Lincolnshire in the south of England. Largely self-taught as a mathematician (at age 16 he read Lacroix's Differential and Integral Calculus in its original French), he was fortunate in gaining mentorship from Augustus de Morgan. While principal of a private school, Boole began original work on calculus, differential equations, and analytical geometry, publishing 11 early papers in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal (although he never attended Cambridge University). In 1844 his first publication in the prestigious Transactions of the Royal Society of London was awarded a gold medal, and he became Fellow of the Royal Society a few years later. In 1849 he was named Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded Queen’s College in Cork, Ireland, where he had a distinguished teaching and research career. He published 60 mathematical papers and four books.

Boole died on December 8, 1864, acclaimed in his time as a leading mathematician and educational reformer. His 400-page magnum opus, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1853), is full of algebra, function theory, logic, and probabilities. While it does not explicitly define the "Boolean algebra" of ones and zeros that the digital world depends on, it inspired many subsequent pioneers. Logician Henry Sheffer coined the term "Boolean algebra" in 1913, and Whitehead and Russell's revised Principia Mathematica (1925–27) popularized it. Claude Shannon was introduced to Boole in a philosophy class at the University of Michigan, and subsequently developed the deep insight connecting Boolean algebra to telephone switching circuits in his Massachusetts Institute of Technology Master's thesis in 1937. Simultaneously, Victor Shestakov in Moscow made a near-identical discovery but did not publish his findings until 1941. Thus, in this case as in so many others, “success has a thousand fathers,” but it was Boole's seminal work that established the essential foundation.

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