Particle toxicology arose in order to understand the mechanisms of adverse effects of 3 major particle types that had historically exerted the greatest toll of ill-health--quartz, coal and asbestos. By the middle of the last century rat inhalation studies had been carried out and the pathology documented, but true mechanistic particle toxicology did not really take off until the 1970s when cell culture techniques became available. By the 1980s glass fibres were a major focus of interest and attempts to develop a structure-toxicity paradigm centred on biopersistence. In the 1990s environmental particles dominated the particle toxicology agenda and the cardiovascular system emerged as a target for inhaled particles, raising new challenges for particle toxicologists. We are currently in the era of nanotoxicology where a large and diverse range of new nanoparticles types are under scrutiny.