RNA polymerase (RNAP) is the principal enzyme of gene expression and regulation for all three divisions of life: Eukaryota, Archaea and Bacteria. Recent progress in the structural and biochemical characterization of RNAP illuminates this enzyme as a flexible, multifunctional molecular machine. During each step of the transcription cycle, RNAP undergoes elaborate conformational changes. As many fundamental and previously mysterious aspects of how RNAP works begin to be understood, this enzyme reveals intriguing similarities to man-made engineered devices. These resemblances can be found in the mechanics of RNAP-DNA complex formation, in RNA chain initiation and in the elongation processes. Here we highlight recent advances in understanding RNAP function and regulation.