The Hawaiian Islands form as the Pacific Plate moves over a ‘hot spot’ in the earth’s mantle where magma extrudes through the crust to build huge shield volcanos. The islands subside and erode as the plate carries them to the north-west, eventually to become coral atolls and seamounts. Thus islands are ordered linearly by age, with the oldest islands in the north-west (e.g. Kauai at 5.1 Ma) and the youngest in the south-east (e.g. Hawaii at 0.43 Ma). K–Ar estimates of the date of an island’s formation provide a maximum age for the taxa inhabiting the island. These ages can be used to calibrate rates of molecular change under the following assumptions: (i) K–Ar dates are accurate; (ii) tree topologies show that derivation of taxa parallels the timing of island formation; (iii) populations do not colonize long after island emergence; (iv) the coalescent point for sister taxa does not greatly predate the formation of the colonized younger island; (v) saturation effects and (vi) among-lineage rate variation are minimal or correctable; and (vii) unbiased standard errors of distances and regressions can be estimated from multiple pairwise comparisons. We use the approach to obtain overall corrected rate calibrations for: (i) part of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene in Hawaiian drepanidines (0.016 sequence divergence/Myr); (ii) the Yp1 gene in Hawaiian Drosophila (0.019/Myr Kambysellis et al. 1995); and (iii) parts of the mitochondrial 12S and 16S rRNA and tRNAval in Laupala crickets (0.024–0.102/Myr, Shaw 1996). We discuss the reliability of the estimates given the assumptions (i–vii) above and contrast the results with previous calibrations of Adh in Hawaiian Drosophila and chloroplast DNA in lobeliods.