The year 2011 marks the centenary of Francis Peyton Rous's landmark experiments on an avian cancer virus. Since then, seven human viruses have been found to cause 10-15% of human cancers worldwide. Viruses have been central to modern cancer research and provide profound insights into both infectious and non-infectious cancer causes. This diverse group of viruses reveals unexpected connections between innate immunity, immune sensors and tumour suppressor signalling that control both viral infection and cancer. This Timeline article describes common features of human tumour viruses and discusses how new technologies can be used to identify infectious causes of cancer.