Venn Diagram Survey
John Venn

Who was John Venn?

Venn diagrams were introduced in 1880 by John Venn (1834-1923), "M.A. Fellow and Lecturer in Moral Science, Caius College, Cambridge University", in a paper entitled On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings which appeared in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science S. 5. Vol. 9. No. 59. July 1880, [Ve80].

John Venn was born August 4, 1834 in Hull, Yorkshire, England and died April 4, 1923 in Cambridge, England. He came from a Low Church Evangelical background and in 1853 entered Gonville and Caius College of Cambridge University. In 1857 he was named a Fellow of the college. He was ordained a priest 1859 and for a year was curate at Mortlake.

He published his first book Symbolic Logic in 1881 and The Principles of Empirical Logic in 1889. In 1883 John Venn was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

He wrote a history of his college, The Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College 1349-1897 (1897), and then began to compile a history of Cambridge University. He completed three volumes, and others continue the work, with the eighth volume now in preparation.

The use of diagrams in formal logic is not an easy history to trace, but it is certain that the diagrams that are popularly associated with Venn, in fact, originated much earlier. They are rightly associated with Venn, however, because he comprehensively surveyed and formalized their usage, and was the first to generalize them. It is worth noting that his book [Ve80] is still in print. For more of the history of Venn diagrams the reader is referred to the articles by Baron [Bar] and Hamburger and Pippert [HP00], and the recent book by Edwards [Ed04]. The first use of the term Venn diagram, according to the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, is in the book "A Survey of Symbolic Logic" by Clarence Irving Lewis, 1918.

The small image of John Venn at the top of this page is courtesy of the wonderful "MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive" [MAC]. The gifs of the stained glass are courtesy of Anthony W.F. Edwards.