The surprising message of Allen et al. (Allen et al. 1992 Phys. Rev. A 45, 8185 (doi:10.1103/PhysRevA.45.8185)) was that photons could possess orbital angular momentum in free space, which subsequently launched advancements in optical manipulation, microscopy, quantum optics, communications, many more fields. It has recently been shown that this result also applies to quantum mechanical wave functions describing massive particles (matter waves). This article discusses how electron wave functions can be imprinted with quantized phase vortices in analogous ways to twisted light, demonstrating that charged particles with non-zero rest mass can possess orbital angular momentum in free space. With Allen et al. as a bridge, connections are made between this recent work in electron vortex wave functions and much earlier works, extending a 175 year old tradition in matter wave vortices.This article is part of the themed issue 'Optical orbital angular momentum'.