The roots of the University of California go back to the gold rush days of 1849, when the drafters of the State Constitution, a group of vigorous and farsighted people, required the legislature to "encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement" of the people of California. These early planners dreamed of a university which eventually, "if properly organized and conducted, would contribute even more than California's gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations."
The university that was born nearly 20 years later was the product of a merger between the College of California (a private institution) and the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College (a land grant institution). The College of California, founded by former Congregational minister Henry Durant from New England, was incorporated in 1855 in Oakland. Its curriculum was modeled after that of Yale and Harvard, with the addition of modern languages to the core courses in Latin, Greek, history, English, mathematics, and natural history. With an eye to future expansion, the board of trustees augmented the college's Oakland holdings with the purchase of 160 acres of land four miles north, on a site they named Berkeley in 1866. (Cal's Charter was introduced in 1868.) This original tract was to be considerably expanded over the years.
While the College of California was in its infancy, efforts continued in the state legislature to create a public educational institution, and in 1866 the legislature took advantage of the federal Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 to establish the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College. The college was to teach agricultural, mechanical arts, and military tactics "to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life." Scientific and classical studies were not to be excluded but were of secondary importance.
The boards of trustees of the College of California and the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College decided to merge the two schools to their mutual advantage — one had land but insufficient funds and the other had ample public funds but no land-on the condition that the curricula of both schools be blended to form "a complete university." On March 23, 1868, the governor signed into law the Organic Act that created the University of California. The new university used the former College of California's buildings in Oakland until South Hall and North Hall were completed on the Berkeley site (South Hall is still standing), and in September 1873 the University, with an enrollment of 191 students, moved to Berkeley.
Fiscal problems plagued the new University, and it was not until the 20-year presidency of Benjamin Ide Wheeler beginning in 1899 that finances stabilized, allowing the University to grow in size and distinction. Early in this period Phoebe Apperson Hearst, one of the University's most generous benefactors, conceived of and financed an international competition for campus architectural plans that, she stipulated, "should be worthy of the great University whose material home they are to provide for."
The competition, won by Emile Bénard of Paris, brought Berkeley not only a building plan but worldwide notoriety. The London Spectator wrote, "On the face of it this is a grand scheme, reminding one of those famous competitions in Italy in which Brunelleschi and Michaelangelo took part. The conception does honor to the nascent citizenship of the Pacific states" At Oxford University, which at the time was strapped for funds, a Latin orator said, "There is brought a report that in California there is already established a university furnished with so great resources that even to the architects (a lavish kind of men) full permission has been given to spare no expense. Amidst the most pleasant hills on an elevated site, commanding a wide sea view, is to be placed a home of Universal Science and a seat of the muses."
John Galen Howard, the supervising architect charged with implementing the Benard plan, took advantage of his "permission to spare no expense" and developed a style of architecture that reinterpreted the grace, dignity, and austerity of classical lines to suit the California environment. Some of the campus's most elegant and stately structures were built during Howard's tenure, among them the Hearst Memorial Mining Building (1902–1907), the Hearst Greek Theatre (1903), California Hall (1905), Doe Library (1911–1917), the Campanile (1914), Wheeler Hall (1917), Gilman Hall (1917), and Hilgard Hall (1918).
President Wheeler, a classical scholar and able administrator, attracted library and scholarship funds, research grants, and a distinguished faculty to the University, and its reputation grew, particularly in the fields of agriculture, the humanities, and engineering. Many new departments were added in the early years of his presidency, and existing departments expanded. Summer sessions were begun in 1899 to train physics and chemistry teachers and before long broadened their scope.
The University grew with the rapidly expanding population of California and responded to the educational needs of the developing state. In the early 1900s the University's new College of Commerce (now the Haas School of Business) trained students for export trade with the Orient and funneled graduates into industries and businesses throughout the state. During the same period a foreign service training program was developed in response to State Department concern about the poor quality of consular personnel.
In 1930 Robert Gordon Sproul began a presidency that lasted three decades. His principal concern was academic excellence, and he was committed to attracting brilliant faculty in all fields. His success was particularly evident in the physical and biological sciences.
In the 1930s research on campus burgeoned in nuclear physics, chemistry, and biology, leading to the development of the first cyclotron by Ernest O. Lawrence, the isolation of the human polio virus, and the discovery of all the artificial elements heavier than uranium. Eighteen members of the Berkeley faculty have been awarded Nobel Prizes for these and subsequent discoveries, as well as in literature and economics, for liberal arts kept pace with physical sciences. In 1966 Berkeley was recognized by the American Council on Education as "the best balanced distinguished university in the country."