Happy Birthday, John Venn! Five Fun Facts About Our Favorite Mathematician

Blue-Insight-laptop.pngBlueLull. BlueLiebniz. BlueEuler. If our name had been inspired by anyone else, BlueVenn just wouldn’t be the same. Sure, John Venn may not have been the first to use schematic diagrams to represent set collections and all their possible logical relations, but unlike those before him, he was the first to popularize them.

Today is the venerable (or, should that be Venn-erable) logician, mathematician and philosopher’s 183rd birthday. Would he recognize how Venn diagrams are used in the modern world? That, nearly two centuries later, he would be celebrated by Google? Or, that the same sorts of diagrams first used in his paper, The Logic of Chance (1866), would be used to create internet memes about Batman, interpret song lyrics, or become the basis for many, many hundreds of Buzzfeed posts? Probably not.

So, join us in celebrating one of East Yorkshire's finest exports, with this collection of delightful John Venn facts.

1. People get Venn diagrams and Eulerian Circles mixed up all the time

When Venn first published his now famous diagrams, he referred to them as ‘Eulerian Circles’, named after the 18th century Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler. People regularly get the two confused (even us, we must confess) and many so-called Venn diagrams are technically Euler diagrams.

There is one main difference between the two:

Venn diagram vs Euler Diagram

Venn diagrams – Show every possible logical relationship between sets, whether anything is in a set or not. Empty sets are commonly shaded.

Euler diagrams – Only sets with a relation that exists will overlap. Shaded (empty) sets can often be completely removed.

So, while an Euler diagram can be a Venn, a Venn diagram is not an Euler. If you're really keen, you can read more about the difference here.

2. Venns are a lot older than you think

llull.jpgEven before Euler, mathematicians have been creating Venn-like diagrams. For example, 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Liebniz used similar logic diagrams (which appeared in works originally created in 1686). In The Logical Status of Diagrams, author Sun-Joo Shin, claims that “circles used for representing classical syllogisms” go back as far as the Middle Ages, with Mallorcan logician Ramon Lull and his 16th century book on algebra, Ars Magna.

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3. The term ‘Venn diagram’ was not used until half a century after John Venn first created them

American philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis who was the first to coin the term ‘Venn diagram’, in his paper A Survey of Symbolic Logic, first published in 1918. Incidentally, this was just five years before John Venn’s death, aged 88, in 1923

4. Venn worked with George Boole, creator of Boolean logic

It was in one of Venn’s papers, Symbolic Logic, published in 1881, where his diagrams were first used to visualize and extend fellow Yorkshireman George Boole’s algebraic logic. And, as any statistician or computer programmer will tell you, Boolean logic is considered as laying the foundations for the Information Age.


5. Venn once built a cricket bowling machine

As well as a mathematician, keen mountain climber and ordained priest (although only for a while, because Venn could not maintain his philosophical beliefs as well as his religious conviction) he was also a bit of an inventor.

In 1909 he patented a machine that could bowl cricket balls. When the Australian cricket team visited Cambridge (where he was a University Fellow) that year, it clean bowled an Australian star player four times!

So, thought you knew about Venn diagrams?! Well hopefully you now know a lot more.

...and finally, Happy Birthday Mr John Venn!

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