Data obtained in the past few years have defined the molecular mechanisms of contact activation of the Hageman factor pathways of plasma, i.e., the kinin-forming, intrinsic clotting and fibrinolytic systems. Involved are four molecules: Hageman factor, high molecular weight (MW) kininogen, prekallikrein and factor XI. High MW kininogen serves as a surface cofactor to assemble prekallikrein or factor XI in proximity to surface-bound Hageman factor. Reciprocal proteolytic activation of Hageman factor and prekallikrein represents an essential step in the rapid activation of the contact phase. Although Hageman factor does undergo cleavage and activation in the absence of prekallikrein or high MW kininogen, the rate is approximately 50 and 100 times slower than when these molecules are present. Once Hageman factor is activated on the surface, it cleaves and activates clotting factor XI. Activated Hageman factor (HFa) exhibits two molecular forms. One of these, alpha HFa, activates prekallikrein and factor XI, and the intrinsic clotting system on the surface. alpha HFa and clotting factor XI remain surface bound. The other form of activated Hageman factor, beta HFa, leaves the surface, going into solution where it readily activates additional prekallikrein but not factor XI. Of perhaps even greater importance, kallikrein rapidly dissociates from the surface. Thus the formation of bradykinin and fibrinolysis is disseminated whereas clotting via the intrinsic system remains localized. Reviewed here is the molecular mechanism of contact activation of the Hageman factor pathways and discussed in the interaction of Hageman factor with the negatively charged surface, prekallikrein, factor XI and high MW kininogen. The multiple forms of activated Hageman factor and their potential biologic significance are also discussed.