In the 1930s, investigators in the US, Germany and Switzerland made the first attempts to quantify the course of labor in a clinically meaningful way. They emphasized the rupture of membranes as a pivotal event governing labor progress. Attention was also placed on the total number of contractions as a guide to normality. Beginning in the 1950s, Friedman determined that changes in cervical dilatation and fetal station over time were the most useful parameters for the assessment of labor progress. He showed all normal labors had similar patterns of dilatation and descent, differing only in the durations and slopes of their component parts. These observations led to the formulation of criteria that elevated the assessment of labor from a rather arbitrary exercise to one guided by scientific objectivity. Researchers worldwide confirmed the basic nature of labor curves and validated their functionality. This system allows us to quantify the effects of parity, analgesia, maternal obesity, prior cesarean, maternal age, and fetal presentation and position on labor. It permits analysis of outcomes associated with labor aberrations, quantifies the effectiveness of treatments and assesses the need for cesarean delivery. Also, dysfunctional labor patterns serve as indicators of short- and long-term risks to offspring. We still lack the necessary translational research to link the physiologic manifestations of uterine contractility with changes in dilatation and descent. Recent efforts to interpret electrohysterographic patterns hold promise in this regard, as does preliminary exploration into the molecular basis of dysfunctional labor. For now, the clinician is best served by a system of labor assessment proposed more than 60 years ago and embellished upon in considerable detail since.