Mashup of photo of McLaughlin Hall and the Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Building (date unknown) with photos of current students

Then & now

June 2, 2018 by Julianna Fleming
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Spring 2018

Current photos by Noah Berger | Historical photos courtesy the Bancroft Library

Looking back over Berkeley Engineering’s past 150 years, it’s clear that the driving forces of innovation and public service are its enduring legacy, one still being carried forward by today’s researchers.

Mashup of historical photo of mining students and photos of current students with devicesHistoric photo: Mining students working outside the Mechanic Arts Building, circa 1900

When Hearst Memorial Mining Building opened in 1907, mining was critical to the young state of California. With its smelters, rock crushers, drilling rigs and fume hoods, the building showcased turn-of-the-20th-century mining technology. Eventually, mining made way for materials testing and research. This drew researchers such as Earl Parker, professor of metallurgy, who came to Berkeley in 1944 to determine why the steel in Liberty Ships — built to carry supplies during World War II — was cracking. He became a major contributor to research on defects and dislocations, paving the way for the development of new steel alloys and other materials with exceptional strength and resistance to fractures.

Now, materials science professors Kristin Persson and Gerbrand Ceder are creating materials, atom by atom, through a technique called high-throughput computational materials design. In 2011, Persson launched the Materials Project, creating an open-access database for computed materials. Today, the project catalogs the basic properties of nearly 70,000 inorganic compounds, as well as the properties of hundreds of thousands of other materials and millions of associated computed properties. Materials research has historically been a long and costly process, but through the Materials Project, scientists can quickly identify the most promising combinations to develop the materials of tomorrow.



After World War II, there was a major push by injured veterans for upgraded prosthetics. It was during this time that mechanical engineering professor Charles “Chuck” Radcliffe — who interrupted his own studies at Berkeley to serve in the U.S. Navy during the war — began his legendary research in prosthetic biomechanics and limb design. Working out of the Biomechanics Laboratory, originally established by civil engineering professor Howard Eberhart, a fellow pioneer in the research and development of artificial limbs, Radcliffe designed components that dramatically improved the performance, comfort, stability and control of lower-limb prosthetics. His research on gait cycle biomechanics remains relevant to today’s designers.

Berkeley researchers continue to develop advanced prosthetics and exoskeletal devices, but now the study of biomechanics also happens at the cellular and molecular level. Called mechanobiology, this cutting-edge science investigates how cell shape, structure and environment affect the body, including the development of diseases. For over a decade, bioengineering professor Sanjay Kumar has looked at the mechanobiological regulation of cells in the brain, including cancer cells in glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer. Having identified mechanical and other biophysical signals that influence the growth and motility of cancer cells, he is developing technologies to manipulate these signaling systems, making this a promising research area for future therapies.


Many of today’s high-rise buildings, long-span bridges and dams were strongly influenced by Berkeley-generated research on concrete, the most widely-used construction material in the world. These advances were made possible by the vision of civil engineering professor and concrete researcher Raymond Davis, who in the 1920s grew the Engineering Materials Laboratory into the preeminent facility for construction research. Perhaps the most legendary researcher from the lab was T.Y. Lin, professor of civil engineering from 1946–76, who perfected the use of prestressed concrete, profoundly changing the history of building construction. He greatly simplified the design process for using the material, which quickly became integrated into structural engineering projects worldwide.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where civil and environmental engineering professor Claudia Ostertag is researching ways to make concrete more durable and sustainable. She has developed concrete composites than can mitigate damage in concrete structures, controlling cracking from the micro to the macroscale. Under testing, concrete structures that utilize these composites have shown exceptional resistance to cracking, outperforming conventional concrete structures.



California’s population was a mere 1.8 million residents in 1905, when Charles Gilman Hyde joined Berkeley’s civil engineering faculty. But he had the foresight to create environmental engineering practices that supported health and ecology, even as the state’s population soared. Known as the “Dean of Sanitary Engineering of the West,” Hyde developed Berkeley’s world-renowned sanitary engineering program with the assistance of civil engineering professor Wilfred Langelier, a noted chemist. Hyde worked with Langelier to pioneer science-based water treatment technologies — which were integrated into the curriculum as well as adopted by water treatment plants worldwide — and was a major contributor to many of the state’s high-profile water projects.

Today, as California’s population approaches 40 million, civil and environmental engineering professor David Sedlak is advancing water treatment technologies that are cost-effective and sustainable. The co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, Sedlak is pursuing several approaches for creating water infrastructure for the next century, including designing open water wetlands. These manmade, lined pools of shallow water act as natural filters, using sunlight to break down chemicals and contaminants, and have proven more effective than other types of constructed wetlands at decontaminating water. With climate change and an increasingly crowded planet, this could be one of the pivotal technologies for ensuring a safe water supply in the future.


When Clarence Cory became the university’s first professor of mining and electrical engineering in 1892, the electric light and power industry was barely a decade old. After first working to supply light and power for the entire campus, Cory developed technology to support California’s growing need for electricity, which was largely dependent on remote hydroelectric plants located in the Sierra Nevada. Recognizing the value of electricity to industry as well as the public, he pursued research that substantially improved the efficiency and range of long-distance power transmission lines that brought electricity to coastal cities.

The focus of modern energy research has shifted to renewable energy systems, in order to reduce carbon emissions. But before utilities can rely on renewables on a broad scale, energy storage issues must be solved to cope with the intermittent nature of these power sources. Now, electrical engineering and computer sciences professor Seth Sanders has created the technology behind the world’s first utility-scale, multi-hour flywheel energy storage device. With this advancement, solar panels and wind farms can become dependable resources for large-sized energy grids.