The global loss and degradation of coral reefs, as a result of intensified frequency and severity of bleaching events, is a major concern. Evidence of heat stress affecting corals through loss of symbionts and consequent coral bleaching was first reported in the 1930s. However, it was not until the 1998 major global bleaching event that the urgency for heat stress studies became internationally recognized. Current efforts focus not only on examining the consequences of heat stress on corals but also on finding strategies to potentially improve thermal tolerance and aid coral reefs survival in future climate scenarios. Although initial studies were limited in comparison with modern technological tools, they provided the foundation for many of today's research methods and hypotheses. Technological advancements are providing new research prospects at a rapid pace. Understanding how coral heat stress studies have evolved is important for the critical assessment of their progress. This review summarizes the development of the field to date and assesses avenues for future research.