A historical emission inventory for sulphur dioxide has been compiled for Europe covering the period 1880–1991. The estimated emissions have been used as input to the sulphur module of the EMEP/MSC-W acid deposition model. The aim was to show the way and the extent to which the historical development of anthropogenic sulphur dioxide emissions alone has affected the concentration and deposition fields of oxidised sulphur in Europe. Although acknowledged, effects exerted by the meteorological variability and the changing oxidising capacity of the atmosphere over the years have not been taken into consideration. Long-term emission estimates reveal that combustion of coal was the dominant emission source before World War II in all countries and combustion of liquid fuels thereafter in most. Releases from industrial processes were relatively small. National sulphur dioxide emissions peaked mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, whilst emission control measures resulted in gradual reductions in most countries in the 1980s. In Europe as a whole, coal combustion remained the major emission source throughout the century. Total anthropogenic releases increased by a factor of 10 between the 1880 s and 1970s when they peaked at approximately 55 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, followed by a 30% decline in the 1980s. Uncertainties in national emission estimates due to uncertain sulphur contents in fossil fuels are within ± 30% for 22 out of 28 countries and ± 45% for the rest. The location of emission sources in Europe has shown over the years a progressive detachment from the coalfields towards a widespread distribution, accompanied in the last decades by considerable emission reductions over north-western and parts of central Europe and substantial increases in the south and south-east. Modelled air concentrations and depositions reflect to a great extent the emission pattern, revealing two- to six-fold increases between the 1880 s and 1970s. Maximum sulphur loadings are confined over parts of north-western and central Europe. Accumulated depositions over the period 1880–1991 in these areas reach 600 g (S) m−2. Emissions are principally in the form of sulphur dioxide, so that comparable concentrations of particulate sulphate in low emission regions indicate the importance of long range transport. Assuming a constant ecosystem sensitivity throughout the period, depositions sufficient to cause ecosystem damage may have occurred before 1880 in many areas of north-western and central Europe. Nevertheless, in large parts of eastern and southern Europe depositions are still below these critical loads.