The dissemination of contact activation of plasma was examined by measuring the cleavage of Hageman factor (HF) molecules on two separate sets of kaolin particles, one of which contained all of the components of the contact activation system, HF, prekallikrein (PK) and high molecular weight kininogen (HMWK) in whole normal plasma, and the second set of particles containing only HF and HMWK, being prepared with PK-deficient plasma. After mixing of the particles, cleavage of HF on the second set of particles occurred at a rate similar to that occurring on the first set of particles. This indicated that rapid dissemination and burst of activity of the contact reaction takes place in fluid phase. A supernatant factor, responsibel for the dissemination of the contact reaction, was identified as kallikrein. A rapid appearance of cleaved PK (kallikrein) and HMWK on both the kaolin surface and in the supernate was observed. Within 40 s, > 70-80% of the PK and HMWK in the supernate was cleaved. On the surface, approximately 70% of each radiolabeled protein was cleaved at the earliest measurement. Cleavage of PK by activated HF occurred at least 17 times faster on the surface than in the fluid phase, as virtually no cleavage of PK occurred in fluid phase. Each molecule of surface-bound, activated HF was calculated to cleave at a minimum, 20 molecules of PK per minute. It is concluded that the contact activaton of plasma may be divided into three phases: (a) the reciprocal activation of a few molecules of zymogen HF and PK on the surface, with HMWK acting as cofactor to bring these molecules into apposition; (b) the rapid release of kallikrein into the fluid phase and the continued conversion of PK to kallikrein by each surface-bound molecule of activated HF; and (c) the activation by fluid-phase kallikrein of multiple surface-bound HF molecules, and the cleavage of multiple molecules of MHWK both in fluid phase and on the surface by the soluble kallikrein. The evidence suggests that steps b and c account for a great majority of the generation of contact activation of plasma.