Vaccination, which is the most effective medical intervention that has ever been introduced, originated from the observation that individuals who survived a plague or smallpox would not get the disease twice. To mimic the protective effects of natural infection, Jenner - and later Pasteur - inoculated individuals with attenuated or killed disease-causing agents. This empirical approach inspired a century of vaccine development and the effective prophylaxis of many infectious diseases. From the 1980s, several waves of new technologies have enabled the development of novel vaccines that would not have been possible using the empirical approach. The technological revolution in the field of vaccination is now continuing, and it is delivering novel and safer vaccines. In this Timeline article, we provide our views on the transition from empiricism to rational vaccine design.