Although in vitro fertilization (IVF) is used widely for a variety of purposes, it is often not appreciated how this technology was developed. A large number of experiments beginning in 1878 contributed to the first successful reports of IVF over 75 years later. The discovery of sperm capacitation in 1951 was central to the development of IVF technology, and it was rapidly followed by the first convincing reports of IVF in several species. The ability to fertilize oocytes in vitro has allowed major advances to be made into understanding the mechanisms involved in fertilization and early development, and IVF now supports reproductive biotechnology in animals and in humans. This article is a historical review of key experiments that helped to provide the basis for present day IVF procedures, placed into context with current practice.