3. Pressing for Research

“I … sympathize with you in your desire to give the men at the head of the department ampler time and freedom for research.”


ecause the faculty was committed to student-centered instruction, and the administration to accommodating rapid departmental and university expansion, faculty often had little choice but to curtail their own research.

Not surprisingly, university administrators faced a cacophony of protest rising from faculty in the Physics Department. They voiced frustration about their lack of time to dedicate to research, as recognized in a letter written from President Benjamin Wheeler to Professor Slate in 1901.

Understanding the Natural World

Variable Electrical Resistance Meter Used as a Pedagogical Tool, ca. 1889
Variable Electrical Resistance Meter Used as a Pedagogical Tool, ca. 1889

[Courtesy Department of Physics]


t the heart of the debate over research was the crucial issue of the University’s purpose: the relative importance of traditional subjects like the ancient languages and philosophy, or matters directly relevant to the young state, like engineering and business. From all sides, pressures played on the young university to commit to pure research or pursue practical applications. Given its preponderant influence on campus, the Physics Department not only felt this complicated issue deeply, but its commitment to real-world issues also provided direction.

In the patchwork of personal interests and professional objectives the physics faculty generally pursued research that sought explicable and predictable patterns in the universe. Their work focused on the kinds of things seen or experienced in everyday life: weight and gravity; force, friction and momentum; electricity; radiation; orbits of the stars. Thus the Physics Department – and to a degree Berkeley’s academic reputation – was built on these elements of classical physics.

Energy and Motion


hile the study of physics would soon become vastly more complex, the early precedent of considering everyday matters established during this early period would remain an important and beneficial departmental legacy.

Consider, for instance, an elementary topic like “conservation of energy and linear momentum,” which served as a focal point of instruction and research in this era.

The Lick Observatory


t would be a gross overstatement to assume that physicists at Berkeley were totally consumed with the natural world. When a dramatic new opportunity presented itself, the physicists expanded their interests, helping to build the University’s reputation for world-class research.

In 1875, during LeConte’s presidency, James Lick, a wealthy and eccentric San Francisco bachelor, gave the University $700,000 for the purposes of “constructing ... a powerful telescope, superior to and more powerful than any yet made,” and personally selected 4,200 foot Mount Hamilton east of San Jose as the site.

Since opening in 1888, this facility has sponsored research that has left its mark on nearly every area of modern cosmology: planets, satellites and comets, double and variable star clusters. Although Lick was primarily the province of Berkeley’s astronomers, the physicists used it for important work, such as mathematically measuring elliptical revolutions of planetary orbits and the photometric chemical composition of light and stars.

These results, foreshadowing Raymond T. Birge’s later experiments in light, energy, and electricity, gave rise to Berkeley’s eminence in science in the 20th century.

Main Dome at Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton, By Edwin R. Jackson, 1891
View of Buildings at Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton
By Edwin R. Jackson, 1891
[UARC PIC 15:34]

Transit Instrument at Lick Observatory, ca. 1900
Transit Instrument at Lick Observatory, ca. 1900

[Courtesy Department of Physics]

View of Base of Elevating Floor for Main Dome by H. E. Matthews, ca. 1890
View of Base of Elevating Floor for Main Dome by H. E. Matthews, ca. 1890

[UARC PIC 15:40d]