Tissue factor (TF) is an integral membrane glycoprotein which functions as an initiator of coagulation. Furthermore, it is probably the principal biological initiator of this essential hemostatic process. This article reviews the studies which form the basis for these assertions. The work on TF is traced from the 19th century discovery of the thromboplastic activity of tissues to the recent purification of the protein from bovine and human tissues and the isolation cDNA clones coding from human TF. The features of TF structure and function which tailor it to the role of initiator of the coagulation cascade are considered. For example, cell-surface TF and factor VII, the plasma serine proteases zymogen, form a proteolytic complex without prior proteolysis of either component. In addition, a kinetic model for the molecular mechanism of TF-initiated clotting is reviewed. The factors which control the expression of TF procoagulant activity by cultured cells are examined in light of the hypothesized role of TF in normal hemostasis. Also, the potential pathological consequences of aberrant TF expression, i.e., thrombosis and hemorrhage, are explored.