John Venn

Born(1834-08-04)4 August 1834
Died4 April 1923(1923-04-04) (aged 88)
Cambridge, England
Alma materGonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Known for
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society (1883)
Scientific career
InstitutionsGonville and Caius College, Cambridge
The Venn Building, University of Hull
Stained glass window at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, commemorating Venn and the Venn diagram
Plaque in the form of a Venn diagram with one set labelled 'Mathematician, Philosopher & Anglican priest', a second set labelled 'Really strong beard game' with the overlapping area labelled 'John Venn'
Alternative heritage plaque for John Venn in Hull

John Venn, FRS,[2][3] FSA[4] (4 August 1834 – 4 April 1923) was an English mathematician, logician and philosopher noted for introducing Venn diagrams, which are used in logic, set theory, probability, statistics, and computer science. In 1866, Venn published The Logic of Chance, a groundbreaking book which espoused the frequency theory of probability, arguing that probability should be determined by how often something is forecast to occur as opposed to "educated" assumptions. Venn then further developed George Boole's theories in the 1881 work Symbolic Logic, where he highlighted what would become known as Venn diagrams.

Early life

John Venn was born on 4 August 1834 in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire,[5] to Martha Sykes and Rev. Henry Venn, who was the rector of the parish of Drypool. His mother died when he was three years old.[6] Venn was descended from a long line of church evangelicals, including his grandfather John Venn.[7] Venn was brought up in a very strict atmosphere at home. His father Henry had played a significant part in the Evangelical movement and he was also the secretary of the Society for Missions to Africa and the East, establishing eight bishoprics overseas. His grandfather was pastor to William Wilberforce of the abolitionist movement, in Clapham.

He began his education in London joining Sir Roger Cholmeley's School,[8] now known as Highgate School, with his brother Henry in September 1846. He moved on to Islington Proprietary School.[4][5]

University life and career

In October 1853, he went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He found the Mathematical Tripos unsuited to his mathematical style, complaining that the handful of private tutors he worked with "always had the Tripos prominently in view". In contrast, Venn wished to investigate interesting ideas beyond the syllabus. Nonetheless, he was Sixth Wrangler upon sitting the exams in January 1857.[9]

Venn experienced, in his words, a "reaction and disgust" to the Tripos which led him to sell his books on mathematics and state that he would never return to the subject.[9] Following his family vocation, he was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1859, serving first at the church in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and later in Mortlake, Surrey.[10]

In 1862, he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in moral science, studying and teaching political economy, philosophy, probability theory and logic.[5][9] He reacquainted himself with logic and became a leading scholar in the field through his textbooks The Logic of Chance (1866), Symbolic Logic (1881) and The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic (1889). His academic writing was influenced by his teaching: he saw Venn diagrams, which he called "Eulerian Circles" and introduced in 1880, as a pedagogical tool. Venn was known for teaching students across multiple Cambridge colleges, which was rare at the time.[9]

In 1883, he resigned from the clergy, having concluded that Anglicanism was incompatible with his philosophical beliefs.[5]

In 1903 he was elected President of the College, a post he held until his death.[5]

I began at once somewhat more steady work on the subjects and books which I should have to lecture on. I now first hit upon the diagrammatical device of representing propositions by inclusive and exclusive circles. Of course the device was not new then, but it was so obviously representative of the way in which any one, who approached the subject from the mathematical side, would attempt to visualise propositions, that it was forced upon me almost at once.

— John Venn[11]

He built rare machines. A certain machine was meant to bowl cricket balls. The machine was so fascinating that when Australian cricketers were visiting Cambridge, the machines were used to entertain their arrival. The bowling machine that Venn built actually bowled out the top ranked player of the team four times consecutively.[12]

In 1883, Venn was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society,[13] and in 1884, he was awarded a Sc.D. by Cambridge.[14]

He died on 4 April 1923.[5]

Civic and personal life

In 1868, Venn married Susanna Carnegie Edmonstone with whom he had one son, John Archibald Venn. His son entered the mathematics field as well.[3]

Newspaper archives show that Venn was a very active member of local civic society in Cambridge, and a committee member of the Cambridge Charitable Organisations Society, later elected vice-chairman in December 1884.[15]

Venn was president of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society in 1908–1909.[16] He is also listed as a vice president of the Cambridge Provident Medical Institution.[17]

Venn was a prominent supporter of votes for women. He co-signed with his wife Susanna, a letter to the Cambridge Independent Press published 16 October 1908, encouraging women to put themselves forward as candidates for the up-and-coming Cambridge town council elections.[18] The letter was co-sponsored by Lady Maud Darwin, wife of Sir George Darwin, and Florence Ada Keynes.

The newspaper archives reveal that Venn was also a passionate gardener, regularly taking part in local competitions organised by groups such as the Cambridgeshire Horticultural Society, winning prizes for his roses in July 1885[19] and for his white carrots later that September.[20]



Venn compiled Alumni Cantabrigienses, a biographical register of former members of the University of Cambridge.[26] His other works include:


  1. ^ Venn, John (July 1880). "I. On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings" (PDF). The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. 5. 10 (59): 1–18. doi:10.1080/14786448008626877. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 May 2017. Google Books
  2. ^ Anonymous (1926). "Obituary Notices of Fellows Deceased: Rudolph Messel, Frederick Thomas Trouton, John Venn, John Young Buchanan, Oliver Heaviside, Andrew Gray". Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 110 (756): i–v. doi:10.1098/rspa.1926.0036.
  3. ^ a b Pickles, John D. "Venn, John Archibald". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40972. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b Gibbins, John R. (2004) "Venn, John (1834–1923)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36639
  5. ^ a b c d e f Duignan, Brian (22 May 2014). "John Venn (English logician and philosopher)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 August 2014.
  6. ^ Anonymous (20 January 2012). "John Venn – Mathematician Biography, Facts and Pictures". Retrieved 3 August 2014.
  7. ^ Anonymous (October 2003). "Venn biography". School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 3 August 2014.
  8. ^ Highgate School Roll 1833–1912, Unwin Brothers Ltd 1913
  9. ^ a b c d Verburgt, Lukas M. (April 2023). "The Venn Behind the Diagram". Mathematics Today. Vol. 59, no. 2. Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. pp. 53–55.
  10. ^ Soylent Communications (2014). "John Venn". Retrieved 3 August 2014.
  11. ^ Edwards, Anthony William Fairbank (2004). Cogwheels of the Mind: The Story of Venn Diagrams. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8018-7434-5.
  12. ^ "John Venn". Famous Inventors. Archived from the original on 2 October 2014. Retrieved 2 August 2018.[unreliable source?]
  13. ^ "Portrait of John Venn". Royal Society Picture Library. Royal Society. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  14. ^ Edwards, A. W. F. (2009). "Statistical Methods for Evolutionary Trees". Genetics. 183 (1): 5–12. doi:10.1534/genetics.109.107847. PMC 2746166. PMID 19797062.
  15. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 6 December 1884. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  16. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 29 October 1909. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  17. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 13 February 1886. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  18. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 16 October 1908. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  19. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 11 July 1885. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  20. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 19 September 1885. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  21. ^ Young, Angus (5 June 2017). "John Venn inspired £325k makeover of Hull's Drypool Bridge is now complete". Hull Daily Mail. Retrieved 12 November 2017.
  22. ^ "John Venn". Carnegie Heritage Centre. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  23. ^ Antonimuthu, Rajamanickam (2014). "John Venn Google Doodle". YouTube. Archived from the original on 12 December 2021.
  24. ^ "4 August: Remembering John Venn on Birthday". Observer Voice. 11 August 2023. Retrieved 11 August 2023.
  25. ^ "Rev and Dr Venn". London Remembers. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  26. ^ Venn, John (1922). Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  27. ^ Venn, John (1876). The Logic of Chance: An Essay on the Foundations and Province of the Theory of Probability, with Especial Reference to Its Logical Bearings and Its Application to Moral and Social Science (Second ed.). Macmillan.
  28. ^ Venn, John (1888). The logic of chance: an essay on the foundations and province of the theory of probability, with especial reference to its logical bearings and its application to moral and social science, and to statistics (Third ed.). Macmillan.