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COMPUTERS DO NOTHING MORE than count on two fingers very quickly: Computer logic assigns 1 or 0 respectively to truth or falsity in the on/off presence of an electrical current. Out of this simple process comes our Information Age, which owes its structure to English mathematician George Boole, who in 1848 published The Mathematical Analysis of Logic.
Boolean Algebra, named in the mathematician’s honor in 1913, is a fundamental study of this truth and falsity. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on George Boole, many of them gleaned from E.T. Bell’s classic Men of Mathematics.
It’s intellectually poignant that my first edition of Bell’s classic was published in 1937, long before computer applications of Boole’s work were fully appreciated. Nonetheless, Bell is such an erudite, witty, and charming biographer that his comments are anything but anachronistic.
Boole’s (Pre-computer) Importance. Bell wrote, “As Bertrand Russell remarked some years ago, pure mathematics was discovered by George Boole in his work The Laws of Thought published in 1854…. Others before Boole, notably Leibnitz and De Morgan, had dreamed of adding logic itself to the domain of algebra; Boole did it.”
Boole’s Upbringing. George was born in 1815 in Lincoln, England, “the son of a petty shopkeeper,” Bell noted. “The whole class to which Boole’s father belonged was treated with a contempt a trifle more contemptuous than that reserved for enslaved scullery maids and despised second footmen.”
Bell wrote that Boole’s formal schooling “was designed chiefly with the end in view of keeping the poor in their proper, unwashable place.” Attempting to counter this, Boole taught himself Latin and Greek. Yet upward mobility was all but impossible: The military required money for purchasing a commission; law also had its financial demands.
Bell noted, “Teaching, of the grade in which he was then engaged, was not even a reputable trade, let alone a profession. What remained? Only the Church. Boole resolved to become a clergyman.”
Bell continues, “In spite of all that has been said for and against God, it must be admitted even by his severest critics that he has a sense of humor. Seeing the ridiculousness of George Boole’s ever becoming a clergyman, he skillfully turned the young man’s eager ambition into less preposterous channels…. he [Boole] acquired a mastery of French, German, and Italian, all destined to be of indispensable service to him on his true road.”
Teaching (and Learning) Mathematics. At age 20, Boole turned to opening his own school. Bell observed, “To prepare his pupils properly he had to teach them some mathematics as it should be taught. His interest was aroused.”
“That Boole saw what others had overlooked was due no doubt to his strong feeling for the symmetry and beauty of algebraic relations…. Others might have thought his find merely pretty. Boole recognized that it belonged to a higher order.”
Bell wrote, “Without this realization that algebra is of itself nothing more than an abstract system, algebra might still have been stuck fast in the arithmetical mud of the eighteenth century, unable to move forward to its modern and extremely useful variants….”
How prescient in 1937! Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll follow along with development of Boolean Algebra, as described so entertainingly by E.T. Bell. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021