This fairly modern field of mathematics (i.e. it has only sprung into existence during the 20th Century) came into being partly because of the myriad different algebraic structures that were studied during the 19th Century and the earlier part of the 20th. Universal algebra aims to find generic ways in which to view all these different kinds of structures (e.g. Boolean Algebras, groups and rings). In this way solutions from one field of algebra can be translated and used successfully in different settings.

The earliest writings relating to universal algebra can be traced back to A. N. Whitehead in his book "A Treatise on Universal Algebra" [1898] and B. L. van der Waerden's "Moderne Algebra" [1931]. However G. Birkhoff, with his book "On the structure of abstract algebra" [1935], is generally viewed as the father of universal algebra.

Much of the work done in universal algebra involves the study of class operators, equational classes (varieties) and clones of operations.

This particular field of mathematics is closely related to the fields of algebraic logic, mathematical logic and model theory.