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Friday, 14 November 2014

Fact 36. Venn diagrams were conceived by an Hullensian.

John Venn was born in Hull and he conceived the idea of using what became known as Venn Diagrams for use in probability, logic and statistics. When I was at school this was called 'modern maths'! A Venn Diagram is a diagram used to represent mathematical or logical sets as circles or curves and where they overlap is where elements of the set are common.

This Venn diagram has three circles showing three sets. They are  children with blonde hair, boys, and children over 8 years old. Where all three circles overlap Sam is found to satisfy all three criteria. It can also be seen that Bill is a boy with blonde hair and Ian is a boy older than 8. The other names only satisfy one of the sets or criteria.

John Venn was born in Hull 4th August 1834. His mother was Martha, nee Sykes, and came from nearby Swanland. His father was Rev. Henry Venn (II) who at the time was Rector of Drypool Church in Hull. Young John had a lot to live up to as his grandfather was Rev. John Venn had been the Rector of Clapham Holy Trinity Church in South London. He was the leader of a group of Evangelical Christians that later had become known as the 'Clapham Sect'. The movement had been started by the Rev. John's father Rev. Henry (I) who had also been the Rector of Holy Trinity. The group were campaigners for the abolition of slavery, prison reform, the prevention of cruel sports and supported missionary work abroad. There are  connections with Hull here as William Wilberforce was another member of the group and is a hero of Hull. The Group also set up the Church Missionary Society that founded Freetown in Sierra Leone to which Hull is now twinned. Young John's father Rev. Henry Venn (II) was also a fellow of Queens College

Our John's mother died when he was only 6 and his father Rev. Henry (II) took up the post of Secretary to the Church Missionary Society in 1841 which meant that they moved to Highgate in London. John was educated at Sir Cholmley's School that later became Highgate School, and then Islington Pre. school. He followed the family tradition of wanting to become a priest for which his strict upbringing had well suited him.

At 19 in 1853 he enrolled in Gonville and Caius College Cambridge and was awarded a maths scholarship the following year.. He graduated in 1857as the 6th best student with a !st Class degree in maths. He was also awarded a Bachelor of Science degree and a little later became a Fellow of the College and remained so all his life.

In 1858 he became a Deacon at Ely and following his ordination in 1859 became a Curate, first at Cheshunt and then Mortlake. In 1862 he returned to Cambridge to lecture in moral science and also studied and taught logic and probability theory.

He married Susanna Edmonstone, the daughter of a vicar in 1869 and they went on to have one son, another John, who went on to become a Fellow of Queens College in 1932 and worked collaborated with his father later in life.

Venn John signature.jpg

Around 1880 he conceived the idea of the Venn diagram during his work in the probability and logic field. He was elected a Fellow of the  Royal Society in 1883 but felt he had to resign from the priesthood as he no longer found that his philosophical beliefs were compatible with the Anglicanism of the time. However he remained a man of sincere religious conviction.

After this time he turned to history and wrote histories of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University and his families history. He collaborated with his son for some of this work. He had long had an interest in building machines and one of his most successful could be said to his machine for bowling cricket balls. When the Australian Cricket team visited Cambridge University in 1909 his machine bowled their top batsman, four times!


He died in Cambridge age 88 on 4th April 1923. In a recent poll his was voted the 3rd Greatest Modern Mathematician after Sir Issac Newton and Leonhard Euler the Swiss Mathematician. His son said of his father, ' of spare build, he was throughout his life a fine walker and mountain climber, a keen botanist and an excellent talker and linguist'.

John Venn's commemorative window at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

There is a stained glass window in his old Cambridge College to commemorate his work and Hull University have named a building completed in 1928 after him.

Hull University Venn Building named after the Mathematician.

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