The continuing miniaturization of microelectronics raises the prospect of nanometre-scale devices with mechanical and electrical properties that are qualitatively different from those at larger dimensions. The investigation of these properties, and particularly the increasing influence of quantum effects on electron transport, has therefore attracted much interest. Quantum properties of the conductance can be observed when 'breaking' a metallic contact: as two metal electrodes in contact with each other are slowly retracted, the contact area undergoes structural rearrangements until it consists in its final stages of only a few bridging atoms [1-3]. Just before the abrupt transition to tunnelling occurs, the electrical conductance through a monovalent metal contact is always close to a value of 2e2/h ([almost equal to] 12.9 k Omega-1), where e is the charge on an electron and h is Planck's constant [4-6]. This value corresponds to one quantum unit of conductance, thus indicating that the 'neck' of the contact consists of a single atom . In contrast to previous observations of only single-atom necks, here we describe the breaking of atomic-scale gold contacts, which leads to the formation of gold chains one atom thick and at least four atoms long. Once we start to pull out a chain, the conductance never exceeds 2e2/h, confirming that it acts as a one-dimensional quantized nanowire. Given their high stability and the ability to support ballistic electron transport, these structures seem well suited for the investigation of atomic-scale electronics.