Automated DNA sequencing instruments embody an elegant interplay among chemistry, engineering, software, and molecular biology and have built upon Sanger's founding discovery of dideoxynucleotide sequencing to perform once-unfathomable tasks. Combined with innovative physical mapping approaches that helped to establish long-range relationships between cloned stretches of genomic DNA, fluorescent DNA sequencers produced reference genome sequences for model organisms and for the reference human genome. New types of sequencing instruments that permit amazing acceleration of data-collection rates for DNA sequencing have been developed. The ability to generate genome-scale data sets is now transforming the nature of biological inquiry. Here, I provide an historical perspective of the field, focusing on the fundamental developments that predated the advent of next-generation sequencing instruments and providing information about how these instruments work, their application to biological research, and the newest types of sequencers that can extract data from single DNA molecules.