An experimental investigation is described in which principal emphasis is given to revealing the nature of the motions in the non-linear range of boundary-layer instability and the onset of turbulence. It has as its central purpose the evaluation of existing theoretical considerations and the provision of a sound physical model which can be taken as a basis for a theoretical approach. The experimental method consisted of introducing, in a two-dimensional boundary layer on a flat plate at ‘incompressible’ speeds, three-dimensional disturbances under controlled conditions using the vibrating-ribbon technique, and studying their growth and evolution using hot-wire methods. It has been definitely established that longitudinal vortices are associated with the non-linear three-dimensional wave motions. Sufficient data were obtained for an evaluation of existing theoretical approaches. Those which have been considered are the generation of higher harmonics, the interaction of the mean flow and the Reynold stress, the concave streamline curvature associated with the wave motion, the vortex loop and the non-linear effect of a three-dimensional perturbation. It appears that except for the latter they do not adequately describe the observed phenomena. It is not that they are incorrect or may not play a role in some aspect of the local behaviour, but from the over-all point of view the results suggest that it is the non-linear effect of a three-dimensional perturbation which dominates the behaviour. A principal conclusion to be drawn is that a new perspective, one that takes three-dimensionality into account, is required in connexion with boundary-layer instability. It is demonstrated that the actual breakdown of the wave motion into turbulence is a consequence of a new instability which arises in the aforementioned three-dimensional wave motion. This instability involves the generation of ‘hairpin’ eddies and is remarkably similar in behaviour to ‘inflexional’ instability. It is also shown that the results obtained from the study of controlled disturbances are equally applicable to ‘natural’ transition.