Beyond calculation: the debt we all owe to George Boole

The world would have been a very different place without George Boole, says Ian McMillan. So why don't more people know about him?

Picture this: it's 1831 in Doncaster and a 16-year-old

boy, who also happens to be a teacher at Miss Heigham's Methodist Academy in the town, is strolling on Town Fields, a big open space surrounded by elegant houses.

The boy's name is George Boole and he's a thinker and a dreamer. He's come from Lincoln to teach in Doncaster and he likes to spend his spare time wandering on Town Fields because it gives him time and space to think. I can agree with old George: my mother told me that when I was young I used to put my anorak on and tell her that I was "going in the garden to think..."

The act of putting one foot in front of the other helps the brain to function, and helps it to come up with unexpected ideas.

I never had many unexpected ideas wandering around our little lawn, apart from my plan to paint pebbles from Llandudno beach with yellow emulsion and put a sign up saying "Gold Found in Darfield" then charge people three old pence to look at the pebbles and retire a rich man after about a week, but George Boole had a heck of a Eureka! moment on Town Fields. He came up with a theory of algebraic logic that formed the basis of the binary system that

all computer systems are based on.

Put it this way: without George Boole and his flash of inspiration on Town Fields, I'd be writing this on a typewriter and you wouldn't be able to email me to comment on it.

You wouldn't be able to ring your mate on your mobile to alert him to the piece and he wouldn't be able to reply on his Blackberry. And you wouldn't be able to make a cup of coffee in the microwave while you thought about it.

I like to think of George Boole leaping in the air and losing his top hat when the basis of the binary system came to him in a blinding flash of light; I picture him, in the cold light of a 19th-century Doncaster afternoon, cartwheeling across the grass and whooping in a most unmathematical way.

Of course the reality probably wasn't like that. I guess he nodded and wrote something in a notebook and then went back to teach the young Methodists of Doncaster until the sun went down.

Boole is an almost forgotten, shadowy figure these days. He was born in Lincoln in 1815 and he died in Cork in 1861; it was written of him that "few distinguished men have had a less eventful life" but that simply isn't true. This assumes that thinking isn't an event, but just because you can't see the wheels moving doesn't mean that nothing's happening, as Einstein said when his wife accused him of staring out of the window when he should have been doing the washing up.

George Boole was an example of that rugged breed, the autodidact, the self-assembly thinker who believes that he can learn everything there is to learn, and that he can think of things that have never, as the Scarecrow sang in The Wizard of Oz, been thunk before.

His father John was another autodidact who passed on his love of gaining knowledge to George who began by learning and understanding the classics at an early age before turning to maths and logic.

While supporting himself as a teacher in Doncaster and later in Liverpool and finally in Ireland, and finding time to father five children, he published books that are among the most profound examinations of logic ever written. His Treatise on Differential Equations and its follow up Treatise on the Calculus of Finite Differences are full of new ideas and closely-written arguments.

Mind you, although the books were extraordinarily groundbreaking in their examination of the idea of logic, they seemed, as one article puts it, "to have been relatively obscure except amongst logicians, and to be of no practical use".

Then, by a series of chance events and coincidences that often seem to characterise this kind of philosophical or

scientific breakthrough, a man called Claude Shannon discovered Boolean Algebra while studying at the University of Michigan. Shannon later "proved that circuits with relays could solve problems of Boolean Algebra" and the path was clear for the foundation of digital design, and hence, over many years and many leaps of imagination, to the laptop I'm writing this on.

Boole died in 1864 after he returned, soaking wet, from giving a lecture, and his wife (following the wisdom of the time) threw more water on him in the mistaken belief that a good soaking would cure the fever that was already setting into George's shivering frame. Logical, I guess, according to the knowledge of the time.

And that's the main point about George Boole: he was ahead of his time by 100 years. And he had his great idea in Doncaster. And he deserves at least a blue plaque, if not World Heritage Status. All hail, George Boole!

A commemorative video about George Boole is being made by Wavelength Arts of Doncaster.