Intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) respond to light in the absence of all rod and cone photoreceptor input. The existence of these ganglion cell photoreceptors, although predicted from observations scattered over many decades, was not established until it was shown that a novel photopigment, melanopsin, was expressed in retinal ganglion cells of rodents and primates. Phototransduction in mammalian ipRGCs more closely resembles that of invertebrate than vertebrate photoreceptors and appears to be mediated by transient receptor potential channels. In the retina, ipRGCs provide excitatory drive to dopaminergic amacrine cells and ipRGCs are coupled to GABAergic amacrine cells via gap junctions. Several subtypes of ipRGC have been identified in rodents based on their morphology, physiology and expression of molecular markers. ipRGCs convey irradiance information centrally via the optic nerve to influence several functions including photoentrainment of the biological clock located in the hypothalamus, the pupillary light reflex, sleep and perhaps some aspects of vision. In addition, ipRGCs may also contribute irradiance signals that interface directly with the autonomic nervous system to regulate rhythmic gene activity in major organs of the body. Here we review the early work that provided the motivation for searching for a new mammalian photoreceptor, the ground-breaking discoveries, current progress that continues to reveal the unusual properties of these neuron photoreceptors, and directions for future investigation.