I will review how our picture of heavy-element nuclear structure has evolved through remarkably simple ideas and related models. It is well known that the Bethe-Weizsäcker semi-empirical mass model had an important role in unraveling radioactive decay and element transmutation in the heavy-element region in the 1930s. A remarkable aspect is that this model could immediately after the discovery of fission be generalized to explain this phenomenon through the consideration of deformation of a charged liquid drop. Bethe and Bacher already raised the possibility that shell structure (by them calculated in terms of a single-particle oscillator potential) could give rise to noticeable deviations between results of the macroscopic mass model and experiment but limited data prevented firm conclusions. In the 1950s the single-particle models took a realistic form and also included deformation. The possibility of the existence of a relatively stable "island" of superheavy elements was raised already then. But it was not until the work by Strutinsky in the mid 1960s that a quantitative model for the nuclear potential-energy emerged in the form of the macroscopic-microscopic model. Although new elements have been discovered at an almost steady pace since 1940, theory indicates that we are close to the end of this era: repulsive Coulomb effects will set the limit of observable elements to near Z = 120.