History of UC Berkeley

Timeline: Discoveries and contributions by UC Berkeley scholars


1887 •  Earthquake science
Earth Sciences professors set up the Western Hemisphere's first string of seismographic stations, to systematically record seismic activity and publish these earthquake records.

1892 •  Sierra Club
The Sierra Club is co-founded by John Muir; UC Berkeley professors Joseph LeConte, J. Henry Senger, and Cornelius Beach Bradley; Stanford University's David Starr Jordan; artist William Keith; and attorney Warren Olney. Many of the club's 182 charter members are scientists, and LeConte's maps of the Sierra range are among its first publications.

1895 •  Nutrition
 grapes M.E. Jaffe becomes the first professor of nutrition in the United States. UC Berkeley quickly moves to the top in this field, making important contributions to the emerging understanding of the positive dietary role of vitamins, minerals, and protein, and the negative role of cholesterol and fats.

1904 •  Rube Goldberg
Rube Goldberg receives his engineering degree. Goldberg subsequently achieves immortality, and a Pulitzer Prize, for his drawings making light of the discipline he studied. The cartoonist's absurdly complex mechanisms for accomplishing simple tasks have become so ingrained in popular culture that his name appears in the dictionary as an adjective.  More >

1907 •  Cleaner smokestacks
Frederick G. Cottrell, professor of chemistry, develops an electrical precipitation device to clean smokestack emissions; it is still in use today.

1914-1920 •  Yosemite wildlife survey Au91dio
 owl Joseph Grinnell, the founding Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and zoology professor Tracy Storer conduct a landmark survey of Sierra Nevada birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, from the Central Valley  through Yosemite Valley to Mono Lake. This early work makes it possible for subsequent generations to compare species diversity to the baseline data (see, for instance, the recent Grinnell Resurvey Project.) In a colorful audio narrative, Ward Russell recounts what it was like to be in the field with Grinnell. More >

1922 •  Vitamin E
Anatomy professor Herbert M. Evans and Dr. Katharine S. Bishop co-discover vitamin E.

1924 •  Deep-sea diving
Chemist Joel H. Hildebrand formulates a mixture of helium and oxygen for deep-sea diving, enabling divers to explore deeper into the sea than ever before, without experiencing the "bends."

1930s •  Fruit cocktail
After working his way through school doing odd jobs, William (Vere) Cruess becomes a professor, a food technologist, and chair of the "Division of Fruit Products" at Berkeley. There he invents the canned-fruit cocktail.

1930s •  Statistical theory
Math professor Jerzy Neyman becomes one of the founders of modern statistical theory, whose applications range from designing the census to assessing the outcome of medical trials. With British statistician Egon Pearson, Neyman develops a method for choosing the most effective test of a hypothesis, and later develops foundational statistical-theory concepts.  More >

1931 •  The cyclotron
 Ernest Lawrence Ernest O. Lawrence designs the first cyclotron, launching the scientific use of particle physics to discover the fundamental structure of matter. The cyclotron has a major impact on the treatment of diseases, making it possible to create in large quantities the radioactive isotopes used in medical treatments. In 1939, Lawrence becomes UC Berkeley's first Nobel laureate.  More >

1935 •  Vitamin K
Herman J. Almquist with Berkeley's Division of Poultry Husbandry discovers and synthesizes vitamin K, a biomolecule necessary for blood to clot properly. The manuscript announcing the discovery is rejected by Science magazine, creating a critical delay that allows Henrik Dam of Copenhagen to beat Almquist to publication and become known as the vitamin's discoverer.  More >

1937 •  Nuclear medicine
John Lawrence, Ernest Lawrence's brother and the director of Berkeley's Donner Lab, becomes the father of nuclear medicine. In 1937 in the first use of radioisotopes to control disease, Lawrence treats individuals suffering from polycythemia vera (over-abundance of red blood cells) with doses of radio-pharmaceuticals; use of iodine to diagnose and treat hyperthyroidism follows.

1940s •  Carbon-14 and photosynthesis
A team led by chemist Melvin Calvin resolves the riddle of photosynthesis, tracing the pathways by which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide to carbohydrates. As part of this effort, Calvin discovers that carbon-14 can be used as a molecular tracer, and uses it to reveal the path of carbon as it travels through a plant. In 1961, Calvin is awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. More >

1940s •  Flu vaccine
The influenza-virus vaccine is developed during World War II by biochemist Wendell M. Stanley and colleagues.

1941 •  Transuranic elements
 Glenn Seaborg Using the cyclotron, plutonium is produced by professors Glenn T. Seaborg and Edwin McMillan and colleagues. For this work, Seaborg and McMillan share the 1951 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Plutonium is one of 16 elements to be discovered at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

1943 •  The atomic bomb
During World War II, UC directs operation of the U.S. government laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, incorporating work by Berkeley faculty and others to develop the atomic bomb. The laboratory is directed by physics professor J. Robert Oppenheimer.

1944 •  Bovine-growth hormone
Bovine-growth hormone is first purified by the Institute of Experimental Biology's Herbert Evans and Choh Hao Li paving the way for the purification of human-growth hormone and, 30 years later, the cloning of human-growth hormone by scientists at UC San Francisco.

1947-1955 •  Lipoproteins and heart disease
 heart John Gofman, medical physics professor, and his former doctoral students Frank Lindgren and Alex Nichols, discover and name the various lipoprotein classes — such as low-density lipoproteins (LDL), today referred to as "bad" cholesterol, and "good" high-density lipoproteins (HDL) — and discover the role of LDL and HDL in heart disease. The ratio of HDL to LDL is a strong indicator of heart-disease risk, they report. Gofman and Nichols also conduct dietary studies showing that people respond differently to diets high in fat and cholesterol, depending on their lipoprotein profiles.

1951 •  Insect control
Professor Edward Steinhaus, a pioneer in the field of insect pathology, uses bacteria to attack a caterpillar that infests alfalfa. This is the first successful use of an insect pathogen to control insects in the field. Today these bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, are used worldwide to fight crop disease; the bacteria secrete a toxin that kills insects, and genetic-engineering companies insert the gene for this toxin into plants, producing crops with a built-in insect resistance.

1952 •  Wetsuits
Physicist Hugh Bradner invents the first wetsuit. The new protective garment helps to spawn new sports such as board sailing and body boarding; transform commercial, military, and recreational deep-sea diving; and advance understanding of oceans.

1954  The polio virus
The UC Berkeley Virus Laboratory crystallizes the virus for polio — the first time an animal virus had been obtained in crystal form.

1960 •  Master Plan for Higher Education  Slideshow
 Clark Kerr The state Legislature approves the California Master Plan for Higher Education. Its chief architect is UC President Clark Kerr, an industrial-relations expert who served as Berkeley's first chancellor from 1952 to 1958. Clark's education blueprint promises California students from all walks of life, regardless of financial means, access to college; the Master Plan continues to guide the state's public higher education to this day and has served as a model nationwide. More >

1961•  Ground-fault interrupter
Charles Dalziel, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, invents a ground-fault interrupter, a device now found in virtually every home and building to protect people from electrical shocks caused by defects in appliances or grounding systems.

1964 •  Free Speech Movement
 Free Speech Movement protest Inspired by the Civil Rights movement and fueled by opposition to the war in Vietnam, Berkeley students organize against rules limiting their political activities on campus. Asserting their Constitutional rights, Free Speech Movement activists hold a series of demonstrations and actions for the right to use Sproul Plaza for political discussion and the dissemination of political literature. The student movement compels the university to drop restrictions on speech, a reform subsequently adopted by most other U.S. campuses. More >

1966-1969 •  No-fault Divorce
 Herma Hill Kay Herma Hill Kay, a faculty member at Boalt Hall, co-drafts California's 1970 no-fault divorce law, the first of its kind in the nation. The law eliminates the need to place blame on a spouse for a failed marriage and makes "irreconcilable differences" sufficient ground for divorce. Eventually, every state in the nation enacts some version of no-fault divorce. Kay later serves as the first female dean of the law school (1992-2000).

1967 •  Molecular evolution
 DNA double helix Biochemist Allan Wilson founds the field of molecular evolution, using genetic material, rather than fossils, to investigate the origins of humanity. In 1967, Wilson and doctoral student Vincent Sarich show that proteins evolve and change as life evolves, and consequently can serve as a "molecular clock" to measure the evolutionary relationships between animals, such as between gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. In the early 1980s, Wilson and colleagues defy conventional thinking (which dates human origins to some 25 million years ago); they trace humans back to common ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa some 200,000 years ago. Today, scientists compare DNA to determine evolutionary family trees.

1970s •  Oncogenes
Molecular and cell biologists Peter Duesberg discovers the first cancer-causing gene, or "oncogene," in a virus. Dubbed src, it is implicated in many human cancers. The oncogene hypothesis is now the most widely held scientific theory of the origin of cancer.

1971 •  Birth of biotech
The first biotechnology company, Cetus, is founded by Donald Glaser, winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize in physics.

1971 •  Human pituitary growth hormone
The human pituitary growth hormone (somatotropin) is isolated and, in 1971, synthesized by biochemistry professor Choh Hao Li.

1972  •  Computer-aided circuit design
A team led by Donald O. Pederson develops the Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis (SPICE) — a tool that, along with its derivatives, has been used in the design of almost every integrated circuit since its invention. "Let's SPICE this circuit and see if it works," engineers say.

Mid-1970s •  Materials-dating techniques
 Richard Muller Physics professor Richard A. Muller invents a new method of detecting radioactivity in natural materials. Still widely used to date archaeologic and geologic materials as well as works of art, the method, accelerator mass spectrometry, is faster and more accurate than standard carbon-14 dating.

1973 •  Identifying carcinogens
Biochemist Bruce Ames develops a quick, economical test to identify chemicals that damage DNA, and thus are potential carcinogens. The most widely used test for identifying carcinogenic substances, the Ames Test, as it is known, has prevented many dangerous drugs, chemicals, and products from reaching the market.

1977 •  Berkeley UNIX and the birth of Open-Source software
 computer monitor In 1969, Berkeley electrical-engineering alum Kenneth Thompson and his colleagues at Bell Labs write a new operating system for machines, UNIX. In 1971, Berkeley Professor Bob Fabry buys a $99 copy of UNIX and provides it to a group of students, including Bill Joy, who modify the original code to include a number of new features. In 1977, Joy releases Berkeley UNIX under the Berkeley Software Distribution moniker, and encourages a world of hackers to improve it. The team incorporates these upgrades into future releases — creating a revolutionary new paradigm for software development and distribution, now known as Open Source, which makes source code available for anyone to build upon and improve. More >

1978 •  Beta-endorphin
Beta-endorphin, a substance produced in the brain that acts as a pain killer, is discovered by Choh Hao Li.

1980  Demise of the dinosaurs
Scientists offer evidence that an asteroid or comet struck our planet 65 million years ago, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs and profoundly altering Earth's environment.  The seminal 1980 Science paper was authored by Nobel laureate and professor of physics Luis Alvarez, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab; his son Walter Alvarez, UC Berkeley geologist; and LBL's Frank Asaro and Helen Michels.

1980 •  Poet Nobelist
 Czeslaw Milosz Poet Czeslaw Milosz receives the Nobel Prize in literature, UC Berkeley's first Nobel outside the sciences. A native of Poland who obtained political asylum in France before becoming a Berkeley professor in 1961, his work was prohibited by Poland's communist government; the ban falls apart when Milosz is awarded the Nobel and becomes a national hero in his homeland. Later, Milosz's poems are placed on the monument to fallen shipyard workers in Gdańsk. More >

1981 •  CPU design
Computer scientist David Patterson directs a project that produces a simpler, cheaper, faster approach to the design of computer central processing units (CPUs). This "reduced instruction set computer" (RISC) makes CPUs more efficient.

1985 •  Telomerase
Telomerase, an enzyme that promotes cell division and growth, is discovered by molecular and cell biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Berkeley grad student Carol Greider, and Harvard's Jack Szostak. In 2009, the three are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

1988 •  Microscopic motors
Along with his graduate students, Richard Muller, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, produces the first electrically-powered, microscopic motor, no larger than the width of a human hair. This micro-machine helps spawn the field of Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), used in applications including the auto airbag, a device that is triggered by a MEMs device.

1990 •  Genes and breast cancer
Mary-Claire King and her colleagues at Berkeley find a gene that is strongly linked to breast cancer in families with high risk of the disease before age 45. 

1992 •  Revolution in telescope design
 Keck Observatory UC astronomers led by Jerry Nelson co-develop the world's largest telescope, the W.M. Keck Telescope, atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii. Revolutionary in design, the Keck's primary mirror is composed of 36 hexagonal segments that join to form a single, honeycombed piece of reflective glass.

1994 •  Spousal rape law
Raping one's spouse becomes a felony in California, a crime legally equivalent to non-marital rape. The law is the brainchild of Berkeley lecturer Nancy Lemon.

1995 •  U.S. Poet laureate
 Robert Hass English Professor Robert Hass is named U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. The landscapes of his native Northern California figure large in the sensual geography of Hass's work. He is later awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 book Time and Materials. More >

1995 to present •  Planet hunt
Astronomer Geoff Marcy is a pioneer and leader in the discovery of planets beyond our own solar system. With the discovery of more than 200 exoplanets, Marcy's efforts to find and characterize their orbits and masses leads to a new understanding of the formation of planets and planetary systems.

1998 •  An accelerating universe
Observing distant, ancient exploding stars, Berkeley cosmologists Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess, Alex Filippenko and international colleagues determine that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate — a striking, counter-intuitive observation that implies the existence of a mysterious, self-repelling property of space known as "dark energy."

1998 •  Peace Corps volunteers
UC Berkeley enlists its 3,000th Peace Corps volunteer, more than from any other university.

2000 •  Nobel in economics
Daniel McFadden wins the Nobel Prize in economics, for his work studying behavioral patterns in individual decision-making. More >

2001 •  Nobel in economics
George Akerlof wins the Nobel Prize in economics, for work showing how markets malfunction when buyers and sellers have access to different information. More >

2003 •  Mark Twain online
mark twainThe Bancroft Library brings author Mark Twain into the 21st century, publishing his body of letters online. Berkeley's library houses the world's largest collection of Twain's writings, photos, scrapbooks, and books from his personal library. More >

2006 •  Medicine for malaria
 mosquito A group led by chemical engineer Jay Keasling clears a major hurdle to creating a widely affordable version of the life-saving antimalarial drug artemisinin. He does this by successfully engineering the production of artemisinic acid, which is one chemical alteration away from artemisinin.

2006 •  The "seeds" of the modern universe Slideshow
In 1992, a team led by cosmologist George Smoot obtains the earliest images of the infant universe and observes minute variations in temperature across the sky, revealing the early beginnings of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. These findings confirm the predictions of the Big Bang theory. In 2006, Smoot is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming the most recent of Berkeley's 20 Nobel laureates. More >

2007 •  Biofuels
Energy giant BP selects UC Berkeley to lead a $500 million effort to develop biofuels to help meet the world's energy needs. More >

2000 to present •  Satellite operations
 UC Berkeley further extends its research efforts in space, opening a facility at the Space Sciences Laboratory for the operational control of scientific research satellites. THEMIS, launched in 2007, becomes the 4th satellite to be managed from Berkeley.

2009 •  New Institutional Economics
Oliver Williamson's research on economic governance, especially the "boundaries of the firm," opens an analytic window into the "make or buy" decisions that all businesses face. A co-founder of the field of New Institutional Economics, Williamson is awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.