© 2019, Springer Nature Limited. There is an urgent need to transition from fossil fuels to solar fuels — not only to lower CO 2 emissions that cause global warming but also to ration fossil resources. Splitting H 2 O with sunlight emerges as a clean and sustainable energy conversion scheme that can afford practical technologies in the short-to-mid-term. A crucial component in such a device is a water oxidation catalyst (WOC). These artificial catalysts have been developed mainly over the past two decades, which is in contrast to nature’s WOCs, which have featured in its photosynthetic apparatus for more than a billion years. Recent times have seen the development of increasingly active molecular WOCs, the study of which affords an understanding of catalytic mechanisms and decomposition pathways. This Perspective offers a historical description of the landmark molecular WOCs, particularly ruthenium systems, that have guided research to our present degree of understanding.