George Boole was a great intellectual and a great man of Lincoln. He was acclaimed a child prodigy in languages, became a professional teacher at the age of sixteen and won the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in Mathematics at twenty-nine. This was all achieved by a self-taught man without advanced formal education.
Whilst running his own school in Pottergate, Lincoln, he published 'The Mathematical Analysis of Logic' which laid the foundation for his 'Boolean Logic' that underpins our modern technology. This led to his later work 'An Investigation of the Laws of Thought' which gave birth to much of modern 'pure' maths. It is also at the heart of the work which was used almost 100 years later by Claude Shannon and colleagues to make programming an electronic binary computer possible in the sense we know it today. Boole had no idea that would be the result of his endeavours; his was a pure 'blue sky' concern – to model thought mathematically.
It is notable that Augustus De Morgan (1806-71), a correspondent and mentor to Boole, also tutored Ada Lovelace (1815-52) and was one of the few friends of Charles Babbage (1791-1871). Babbage invented the mechanical computer, and Lovelace the computer program. Sadly, neither of them met George Boole. If they had, perhaps the digital age would have been upon us a century earlier and Lincoln seen as the centre of it all!
Boole's Early Years
Boole was born on 2 November 1815 in Silver Street Lincoln. He was baptised the next day in nearby St Swithin's Church. This was not the current magnificent church which was completed in 1887, more than 20 years after George's death in 1864. The position of the earlier church can still be seen in the small green space between Bank Street and Free School Lane.
This was an important place for Boolean Logic because the minister at St Swithin's, Rev G S Dickson, was one of those who encouraged George's mathematical endeavours by lending him a book on differential calculus.
Another local person who encouraged George mathematically was Sir E F Bromhead of Thurlby Hall, near Bassingham, eight miles south of Lincoln. Bromhead was a patron of many notable 'natural philosophers' in the area.
In 1816 George's parents moved to 49 Silver St and this small area near the centre of Lincoln remained important to George throughout his life in the city. He went to an infants' school in Mint Lane and later lectured to working people in the Mechanics Institute that was housed in the old Grammar School on Free School Lane, between what is now the library and the new St Swithin's.
George's first school as proprietor was in the lane too. Unfortunately, almost every site which Boole would have known in 'down hill' Lincoln has been completely redeveloped at least once since his time. The Grammar School is one of the few places he would still recognise.
George was largely self-taught in everything (which some say might explain his brilliance). However, his uncle was a schoolmaster with his own school on the High Street. Also, he received some formal education at a school in Michaelgate to the north of his boyhood streets.
He started to assist the schoolmaster here when he was only thirteen. To the East of this a couple of streets over, at the foot of Steep Hill, was the Jew's House, a reminder of the medieval Jewish community in Lincoln and its persecution.
As a boy, George was mentored by a Jewish man and this is thought to have influenced his Christian beliefs and the basic assumptions of his Boolean Logic.
To the south of the Jew's House lived another supporter of the young prodigy, his first publisher, William Brooke. His shop was opposite St Mary Le Wigford Church on High Street.
At fifteen Boole gained some notoriety when the local newspaper, The Herald published a poem that George had translated from classical Greek. Some readers refused to believe that such a youngster, especially one without formal instruction in the classics, could have produced it unaided. After a protracted period of public investigation, Boole was correctly credited with the translation.
Boole Begins to Make his Mark
George began to publish mathematical papers in the early 1840s and soon was recognised by the most accomplished mathematicians as one of their best. The Royal Society gave him their coveted Royal Medal and eventually he was awarded top academic honours, despite never gaining entry qualifications for university.
One wonders, if it had existed then, would the University of Lincoln have opened its doors to Lincoln's home-grown mathematical genius? If it had, George would almost certainly never have left the city and his subsequent life in Ireland, his marriage and his five daughters might have been denied him.
At the age of sixteen Boole started work as a paid schoolmaster. This was partly in order to support his family because his father's business as a cobbler had collapsed.
After a couple of abortive attempts at teaching in Doncaster and Liverpool, he returned to Lincoln and taught happily at Waddington College – five miles to the south of Lincoln. After a year he launched his own school in the city and settled down to this way of life for four years before being enticed back to the establishment in Waddington to take over from the proprietor for another two years.
His last period of schoolmastering took place from 1840-1849 in his own school at 3 Pottergate, where a plaque is situated. This is almost opposite his father's grave in Minster Yard, to the southeast of the Cathedral. John Boole died late in 1848 and George's mother Mary, who died in 1854, is buried with him.
Boole began to try to use his scientific acclaim to help secure a university post in England. With his background he was not well placed in the establishment politics of the time and this counted against him. Eventually, with the backing of De Morgan, Bromhead and others, he was appointed as the first Professor of Mathematics in the brand new university at Cork in Ireland.
Boole Moves to Ireland
George's friends and well-wishers gathered to give him a send-off dinner before he left for Ireland in late 1849. They chose to hold the commemorative evening in The White Hart hotel on Bailgate.
Interestingly, he probably took advantage of the new rail link, built in 1846 to head west to Liverpool, where he had taught briefly two decades before.
Fifteen years after leaving Lincoln, Boole died of pneumonia in 1864. This was the result of insisting on teaching whilst soaked to the skin by a thunderstorm.
The major Boole memorial in England is the window and plaque in the cathedral. This was paid for by public subscription soon after his death was made known in the city.
It is the fourth stained glass window in the North wall of the cathedral (on the left as you walk through from the main entrance). It is inspired by his commitment to teaching in the city.
The University of Lincoln intends to celebrate Boole's legacy during "BOOLEfest" every November, beginning in 2010. By 2015 the university hope to have worked up to a commemoration which will raise his profile within the city, the county, the country and the world.
Based on text by Dave Kenyon of the University of Lincoln, in turn using original material from Des MacHale's book: 'George Boole' (Dublin, 1985) and the biography of Boole by Eileen Harrison published on the following website: www.rogerparsons.info/george/boole.html
Photographs by Ken Redmore