Dendrites of neurons in the central nervous system are the principal sites for excitatory synaptic input. Although little is known about their function, two disparate perspectives have arisen to describe the activity patterns inherent to these diverse tree-like structures. Dendrites are thus considered either passive or active in their role in integrating synaptic inputs. This review follows the history of dendritic research from before the turn of the century to the present, with a primary focus on the hippocampus. A number of recent techniques, including high-speed fluorescence imaging and dendritic patch clamping, have provided new information and perspectives about the active properties of dendrites. The results support previous notions about the dendritic propagation of action potentials and also indicate which types of voltage-gated sodium and calcium channels are expressed and functionally active in dendrites. Possible roles for the active properties of dendrites in synaptic plasticity and integration are also discussed.