Brown algae share several important features with land plants, such as their photoautotrophic nature and their cellulose-containing wall, but the two groups are distantly related from an evolutionary point of view. The heterokont phylum, to which the brown algae belong, is a eukaryotic crown group that is phylogenetically distinct not only from the green lineage, but also from the red algae and the opisthokont phylum (fungi and animals). As a result of this independent evolutionary history, the brown algae exhibit many novel features and, moreover, have evolved complex multicellular development independently of the other major groups already mentioned. In 2004, a consortium of laboratories, including the Station Biologique in Roscoff and Genoscope, initiated a project to sequence the genome of Ectocarpus siliculosus, a small filamentous brown alga that is found in temperate, coastal environments throughout the globe. The E. siliculosus genome, which is currently being annotated, is expected to be the first completely characterized genome of a multicellular alga. In this review we look back over two centuries of work on this brown alga and highlight the advances that have led to the choice of E. siliculosus as a genomic and genetic model organism for the brown algae.