As this article demonstrates, tremendous progress has been made in the techniques of oxygen measurement and monitoring over the past 50 years. From the early developments during and after World War II, to the most recent applications of solid state and microprocessor technology today, every patient in a critical care situation will have several continuous measurements of oxygenation applied simultaneously. Information therefore is available readily to alert personnel of acute problems and to guide appropriate therapy. The majority of effort to date has been placed on measuring oxygenation of arterial or venous blood. The next generation of devices will attempt to provide information about living tissue. Unlike the devices monitoring arterial or venous oxygen content, no 'gold standards' exist for tissue oxygenation, so calibration will be difficult, as will interpretation of the data provided. The application of these devices ultimately may lead to a much better understanding of how disease (and the treatment of disease) alters the utilization of oxygen by the tissues.