Psychiatry as a field was transformed by the discovery and introduction of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment in the early part of this century. ECT demonstrated that depression was a disease of the brain and that it could be treated with a direct brain intervention. Psychiatry's evolution continued in 1958 with the discovery of the antidepressant activity of the monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Interestingly, although the area of neuropsychopharmacology has continued to advance, the realm of physical somatic interventions in psychiatry has lagged behind. With perhaps the exception of light therapy, there were no advances in somatic interventions in psychiatry. However, in 1985, Barker et al. developed a brief high intensity electromagnet capable of depolarizing cortical neurons, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). There has been much interest in the past 10 years in whether TMS might have antidepressant actions, similar to ECT but without causing a seizure and with no apparent cognitive side effects. This review examines the basic principles underlying TMS, and describes how TMS differs from electrical stimulation and the other uses of magnets.