History of Hydroponics
The history of hydroponics, or growing plants without soil, dates back thousands of years. This section outlines the history of hydroponics as a viable method of crop production and it’s origins.
History of Hydroponics Part 1
Hydroponics, now commonly defined as the soilless growth of plants, has its root foundations in simple observations by early progressive thinkers and tinkerers. Like many scientific discoveries and their evolution to commercial application, the progress of “water culture”, as it was first referred to, came in fits and starts, with major discoveries and realizations followed by extended periods of seeming disinterest.
Many written histories of hydroponic plant cultivation methods mention the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the first written record of which dates to about 290 BC. Penned by Berossus, a Babylonian writer, priest, and astronomer, we only know of Berossus’ writings through quotes by later authors. Five primary authors, including Berossus, are responsible for what we know of the Hanging Gardens today. Their accountings were all written at a later time, based on now lost, previously written accountings by others.
Modern research questions whether the gardens were in Babylon at all, yet the premise that the gardens would in some way qualify as “hydroponic” is doubtful, based on observations by these early writers. Diodorus Siculus, writing between 60 and 30 BC, referenced the 4th century BC texts, Ctesias of Cnidus, for his description of the gardens. After detailing their construction, he includes the following passage, “…on all this again earth had been piled to a depth sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, when leveled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind…”
Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing in the 1st century AD, references writings of Cleitarchus, a 4th-century BC historian for Alexander the Great, who also described the “…deep layer of earth placed upon it and … ”
History of Hydroponics Part 2
Progress regarding the water culture method of growing plants, i.e. “hydroponics,” was slow during the late 19th century. Much of the limited research conducted during that time used to further refine the list of necessary elements required for soilless plant growth, basically through the time-consuming process of trial, error, and elimination.
At the turn of the century, however, science was on the march. Many inventions and discoveries were popularized during this period including radio, the automobile, the camera, moving pictures, and many others. Research into water culture techniques was gaining steam as well. Burton Edward Livingston published “A Simple Method For Experiments With Water Cultures” in Volume 9, No. 1 of The Plant World, wherein he describes a “… simpler method to study the nutrient or stimulating value of various substances.” Also in 1906, J.F. Breazeale of the University of Chicago, published in Volume 41, No. 1 of the Botanical Gazette, an article entitled “Effect Of Certain Solids Upon The Growth Of Seedlings In Water Cultures.” Most of these papers were not written for the layperson, however, and a review of Breazeale’s paper contained the ending caveat “…the paper shows very little consideration for the reader.”
Research techniques were advancing as well. In November 1908, J.J. Skinner published a paper in Volume 11, No. 11 of The Plant World entitled “Water Culture Method For Experimenting With Potatoes.” In 1913, Conrad Hoffman of the University of Wisconsin published in Volume 55, No. 3 of the Botanical Gazette, his research on using paraffin blocks for growing seedlings in liquid culture solutions, since the cork used in experiments to date tended to add soluble compounds to the nutrient solution, potentially corrupting scientific results. And in 1914, W.E. Tottingham, also from the University of Wisconsin, published in Physiological Researches “A quantitative chemical and physiological study of nutrient solutions for plant cultures,” wherein it is described that “…it is the selective absorption of ions rather than complete salts that is indicated … ” and describing…
History of Hydroponics Part 3
“Some of the popular articles on the water-culture method of crop production are grossly inaccurate in fact and misleading in implication. Widely circulated rumors, claims, and predictions about the water-culture production of crops often have little more to commend them than the author’s unrestrained imagination. Erroneous and even fantastic ideas have been conceived that betray a lack of knowledge of elementary principles of plant physiology. For example, there have been statements that in the future most of the food needed by the occupants of a great apartment building may be grown on the roof, and that in large cities “skyscraper” farms may supply huge quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables. One Sunday-supplement article contained an illustration showing a housewife opening a small closet off the kitchen and picking tomatoes from vines growing in water culture with the aid of electric lights. There has even arisen a rumor that the restaurants of a large chain in New York City are growing their vegetables in basements.”
Sound familiar? The previous paragraph is from the introduction to Circular 347, entitled The Water-Culture Method For Growing Plants Without Soil, written by Dennis Robert Hoagland, a Professor of Plant Nutrition and Chemist, and Daniel I. Arnon, Junior Plant Physiologist, both employed by the University of California College of Agriculture, Agriculture Experiment Station in Berkeley, California. Circular 347 was published in December of 1938.
The paper was published by the University after being overwhelmed with thousands of requests for more information about work by their associate, Dr. William F. Gericke, who for the past decade had conducted research about the commercial application of water-culture, a developing crop production science given the name of “hydroponics” by Dr. Gericke in 1937.