The Unsung English Hero Of The Computer Age

Jenny Force Jenny Force, VP of Marketing

George_BooleEvery day thousands of Sysomos users perform searches with our tools using the terms AND, OR and NOT to make sure the system only delivers relevant results. These three simple words are called Boolean operators in computer science and, as well as being useful for building search requests, they are also fundamental to how computers work at their most basic level. All microprocessors and software rely on this Boolean logic to do their jobs.

We’re writing about this topic today because it’s exactly 200 years ago to the day (November 2nd, 1815) that George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic, was born in Lincolnshire, England, and we thought it was a date worth celebrating. Boole is one of the great unsung heroes of the computer age.

People remember the likes of Babbage, Lovelace, and Pascal as early pioneers whose work led to the development of modern computers, but Boole’s enormous contribution is less famous.

The son of a bookseller, Boole had little formal education but learned what he could from his father’s library and, when he became his family’s main breadwinner at the age of 16, he took up a career in teaching. As his career flourished he spent time learning more about mathematics and algebra, going on to publish his own research papers and make connections with leading academics in the field.

At the age of 34 he became the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork, in Ireland, where he would later meet his wife. It was two years earlier, in 1847, that Boole published his first book, The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, in which he introduced the ideas that would come to be so important to the digital age. Boole created a formalised system for analysing logical problems,  which involved reducing the possible answers to either True or False, and using the concepts of NOT, AND, OR to describe the problem systematically. Unbeknown to Boole at the time, this approach would be incredibly useful for future digital computers which could only understand binary numbers, with ones and zeroes representing true and false.  (Here’s a great explanation of how all this really works.)

Today we take these concepts for granted when we interact with computers. Show me results which include search term A AND search term B, but NOT search term C. If X is true OR Y is true, then carry out this instruction. The language is so basic and intuitive to humans that it’s easy to forget their power. With Boolean logic we are able to program our computers to do insanely complicated things, to evaluate different situations and make decisions about how to act, millions of times a second.

Boole’s legacy was inestimable. Without him, who’s to say whether Alan Turing, Grace Hopper and other giants of the early digital age would have been able to make their own achievements, pushing us further forward.

It’s not fair to say Boole is completely overlooked. Many of us have heard of Boolean logic, even if we’re not mathematicians or computer scientists, but how many know anything about the man who gave his name to these ideas which are so essential to the digital technology we are surrounded by? Hopefully a few more today.

Happy birthday George AND thank you.

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