Hydroponics History Part 3

Applying Water-Culture Science to Hydroponic Food Production

by Jeff Edwards

“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. [https://archive.org/details/watercultureme3450hoag/]

Circular 347 California Agricultural Experiment Station | The Water-Culture Method for Growing Plants without Soil

Circular 347 | The Water-Culture Method for Growing Plants without Soil

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.

Capturing the imagination of the public and the press, Gericke’s work was much publicized, as well as ridiculed, even before he adopted the term hydroponics. And while his research was primarily geared towards the commercial applications of hydroponics, his earlier emphasis on nutrient salts added to water as “plant pills,” gave the misimpression to many in the press, and by extension the public, that hydroponics could be carried on by most anyone as a hobby. In fact, by the end of 1938, over 40 different companies on the west coast alone were offering hydroponic chemicals and supplies to the public.

Yet Gericke wasn’t ready to share his work with the public. He wanted to make sure all aspects of hydroponic cultivation were researched and tested before making any of the specifics of his research available to the public. His focus was on the commercial applications, and he emphasized with his superiors at the university that his work was incomplete, that he wanted more time to fully research and understand every aspect of this developing science before allowing others to emulate it.

As Gericke’s work was being conducted under the auspices of the University, administrators felt compelled to release the results of his research for the benefit of the more than 30,000 requests from around the world for more information. Before doing so, they first assigned Hoagland and Arnon to review the work conducted so far and to create a report that checked Dr. Gericke’s research, while including the nutrient salt formulas and design schematics for the equipment developed to date. To Gericke and others, however, Circular 347 seemed written more to undermine the developing technology than promote it by ignoring many of the ancillary benefits of hydroponics, while emphasizing that the authors were able to grow equivalent crops side by side in soil and soilless media, albeit in a greenhouse environment.

Much of Dr. Gericke’s research at that time was being simultaneously conducted at his home in Berkeley, and shortly after the publication of Circular 347, Dr. Gericke terminated his relationship with the University, continuing his research independently at his home greenhouse. Prior to his departure, however, several important experimental projects had been initiated as a result of his work.

Wake Island and Pan American World Airways

In 1934, Pan American World Airways decided upon Wake Island as one of several stops en route to the Far East for their fast growing seaplane fleet, stops that also included Honolulu, Midway Island, and Guam. The air service was launched in 1935, and by the end of 1936, small hotels had been built on the islands to accommodate air clipper passengers and crew while planes are serviced after a 10 to 12 hour flight from one island to the next. Each of the hotels included a restaurant to feed the hungry travelers.

Half of the islands used for these intermediate stops were little more than rocky atolls, with little or no space to cultivate any crops in the traditional ways. The regularly scheduled supply ship, Tradewind, only visited every 6 months and carried very little fresh produce or food as a result. The clipper ship airliners were reserved primarily for passengers and due to the long distances traveled, only essential freight was allowed to fly along to conserve fuel. The one exception was dairy products including milk and cream, due to their perishable nature and that none could be produced on islands.

Pan-American Airlines Hotel on Wake Island (March 1940)

Pan-American Airlines Hotel on Wake Island (March 1940)

In December of 1937, newspapers announced that 23-year-old Lamory T. Laumeister, a senior at the University of California’s Department of Agriculture, who worked closely with Gericke, had traveled to Wake Island to set up a farming experiment using soilless techniques. Hired by Pan-American, the goal was to produce fresh vegetables for the islands’ 35 permanent inhabitants, which included Charles Jenkins, the manager of the newly built Pan-American Hotel, and his wife, the only woman on the island, as well the air passengers arriving twice each week. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins also served as the chefs for the hotel restaurant.

Lamory quickly got to work setting up the tanks and other equipment sent to the island earlier on the supply ship and by the middle of February in 1938, he had produced his first radish crop. Other crops he initially had more difficulties with, with many growing lush vegetation in the tropical sun, but bearing little fruit. Minor changes to the nutrient solution and the installation of a shade structure solved the problems and one month later he provided the restaurant with lettuce, cucumbers and carrots. Once fully operational, weekly yields are reported at 30 pounds of tomatoes, 20 pounds of string beans, 40 pounds of sweet corn and 20 heads of lettuce.

Pan Am Wake Island Hydroponicum

Pan Am Wake Island Hydroponicum

While he was initially hired to spend just six months on the island, he successfully lobbied to stay an extra year, during which time he continued to tweak his 230 square feet of redwood growing tanks. In June of 1939, Torrey Lyons, a University of California graduate with experience in culture solutions, replaced Lamory as head hydroponicist. Taking over the garden, he quickly learned that the number one issue Lamory had was not being able to grow enough to satisfy the regular demands of his small but growing number of consumers, even when he intercropped his growing beds.

Pleased with the results, Pan-American decided to increase the growing capacity sufficiently to keep the airbase fully supplied. To supplement production of the original facility, they approved the construction a new “hydroponicum,” the term Gericke adopted for soilless farms to fight the tendency of the press to label them “bathtub gardens.” The new growing beds would be constructed of concrete and be four times as large, offering almost 1,000 added square feet of growing space. During his tenure, Torrey successfully grew many crops and experimented with a host of different vegetables.

On December 8th, 1941, the Japanese attacked the island, on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the date not matching due to Wake Islands location past the international date line. Afterwards, all U.S. personnel were immediately evacuated from the island and on December 9th, the Japanese attacked again, destroying the Pan American Hotel along with the island hospital. The hydroponicum survived the attack, and was reportedly used by the Japanese during their occupation of the island through 1945.

The Agricultural Experiment Stations

Dr. Gericke’s early publicity had piqued the interest of agricultural scientists around the world and many of them had begun experimentation of their own independent of Dr. Gericke’s work. By 1939, H.M. Biekart and C.H. Connors of the New Jersey Experiment Station had been growing roses and carnations on a commercial-scale, by using a nutrient culture method with pure sand as the growing media, for almost a decade. Other contributors from the NJ Experiment Station included R.B. Farnham, who created a watertight bench system in 1936, along with a sub-irrigation method of delivering the nutrient solution to the plant roots, and Dr. J.W. Shive, who is credited with developing a drip irrigation method of nutrient delivery as far back as 1927.

Biekart and Connors proved that carnations grown in sand fed with a liquid nutrient solution had the same characteristics as their soil-grown counterparts, with respect to appearance, size, and longevity after being cut, yet they were grown for a lower cost. These cost savings are realized by reducing the need for fertilizer applications, and by eliminating the need to manually water, weed and cultivate the plants. They also found that there were fewer issues with plant disease and insect pests.

Robert Withrow, of the Purdue University Experiment Station in New York, late in 1939 developed an even more practical sub-irrigation system, whereby the nutrient tanks are placed beneath the benches, and the solution delivered to the watertight benches with a centrifugal pump, allowing it to drain back into the tanks using gravity. This technique initially was known as the Withrow method, but has since become more popularly identified as the “ebb and flow” or “ebb and flood” method. This method suited itself ideally to much larger applications, thus improving the commercial potential of hydroponics.

J.P. Martin, the head pathologist at the Honolulu Experiment Station, had conducted experiments there with sugar cane grown in sand culture since 1932. Cornell University built a hydroponic research greenhouse. Other Agricultural Experiment Stations that provided key research for the soilless growth of plants included Ohio, Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Hydroponic Corn Ohio Agriculture Experiment Station 1938

Hydroponic Corn | Ohio Agriculture Experiment Station 1938

Internationally, the British Ministry of Agriculture took notice of hydroponics and promoted the technology during the Grow More Food Campaign before and during World War II. Professor Shinichiro Kasugai with the agriculture department of the Tokyo Imperial University was the first agrobiologist to succeed in growing rice, sweet potatoes and melon plants to harvest via soilless methods without supplemental nutrient solution aeration. By 1940, experimental hydroponicums were established in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Israel, Japan, India, Russia, Germany, and South Africa.

Early Entrepreneurial Efforts

A number of entrepreneurs took up hydroponics early on as a result of Gericke’s work, the first with any measure of success being Ernest W. Brundin, a University of California graduate of Montebello, California. A well to do businessman, Mr. Brundin was taken by the early accounts of Gericke’s work, and independently started his own greenhouse tomato farm, experimenting by himself at producing commercial quantities of soilless grown tomatoes. Once established, his one-half acre was producing 40 tons of tomatoes a year and he believed he could eventually produce 100 tons to the acre.

Brundin named his new concern The Chemical Culture Company and was so successful, that by May of 1938 he had already secured contracts to supply the dining cars of eastbound transcontinental trains, eventually securing steamship dining contracts, as well as shipping them for sale as far away as New York City.

In early tests, Dr. Gericke had warmed the nutrient solution of his tanks with soil-heating cables, believing at the time that warming the nutrient temperature would increase growth. An earlier attempt at establishing a commercial tomato farm failed due to the prohibitively expensive electricity cost these cables required.

Brundin and Lyon System of Water Culture Patent Drawing

Brundin and Lyon System of Water Culture Patent Drawing

With the help of his associate, F.F. Lyons, Brundin turned to solving this issue through steam, developing and patenting a growing system that connected a hundred growing tanks to a centrally located reservoir, where the temperature of the nutrient is raised to 80 degrees F. by a steam boiler, before being mechanically pumped back to the growing beds on a timed schedule, after which it would drain back by gravity to the reservoir. He was almost as active as Gericke in promoting hydroponics and in fact held a week-long exposition of his “now world-famous plants” in the downtown location of The May Company, a leading department store in Los Angeles.

E.W. Brundin can also be credited with patenting the first hobby hydroponic system, called the “chemical agriculture system” in 1938, and developed and patented the first passive hydroculture pots for home use, described as a “double-decked” pot that contained nutrient solution below a growing pot with a wick that would carry the nutrient solution up to the roots of the plant, and included a built-in solution level indicator.

E.W. Brundin's Patented Chemical Agriculture System

E.W. Brundin’s Patented Chemical Agriculture System

Brundin wasn’t alone, however. Another one hundred tank commercial hydroponicum was established by a former student of Dr. Gericke’s near Sacramento known as the California Packing Company.

Rolland Langley of Mountain View, California, was a pioneer in establishing hydroponics as a teaching tool in schools. Used by thousands of teachers, in 1939 Langley developed a small leak proof hydroponics kit that could be used in any school window, complete with a “…tank, tray, excelsior, rice hulls, and the plant nutrients.”

On the east coast in August of 1938, ads for salesmen to act as distributors for “…quick selling line of hydroponic chemicals and equipment…” began appearing in many newspapers, placed by the Modern Gardening Sales Company of New York City. In November of 1938, George Zarafonctis, the maĆ®tre d’ of the downtown Hilton Hotel in Lubbock, Texas, opened a rooftop hydroponicum to supply fresh vegetables to the hotel restaurant. Many other examples of hydroponic entrepreneurship exist during this period of time, too numerous to list here.


During 1939, a number of expositions featured exhibits highlighting the new soilless plant growing techniques, including the 1939 State Fair of Texas and the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition, where the growing tanks were constructed of glass so that visitors could see the plant roots growing.

Heinz Chemi-Culture Exhibit New York World's Fair 1939

Heinz Chemi-Culture Exhibit New York World’s Fair 1939

Perhaps the most popular show was in the Heinz Dome at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, an exhibit that contained displays representative of the company famous for their Heinz 57 ketchup. On display were several tomato plants being grown via “chemiculture,” with the plants rooted in sand and individual bottles of nutrient solution fed to the roots via gravity through clear tubes. And while it was admitted that these weren’t the same tomatoes that Heinz currently used in their products, they predicted that crops grown in the future could be done so without soil.

Heinz Chemiculture Tomatoes | New York World's Fair 1939

Heinz Chemiculture Tomatoes | New York World’s Fair 1939

So popular was the Heinz exhibit during the first year of the fair, it was greatly expanded for the 1940 season (May-October) and G.B. Van Veghten was hired to grow an expanded selection of both flowers and vegetables for the attendees viewing and educational pleasure.

Heinz Dome Chemiculture Exhibit | New York World's Fair 1940 | G.B. Van Veghten

Heinz Dome Chemiculture Exhibit | New York World’s Fair 1940 | G.B. Van Veghten


After leaving the University of California to pursue hydroponic research on his own, Dr. Gericke continued to promote his latest research under the auspices of his newly adopted terminology. Any opportunity he could avail himself of to spread the promise of hydroponics, he took advantage of. He also would use this time to complete his book published in 1940, The Complete Guide To Soilless Gardening, the title and cover of which curiously lacked any reference to hydroponics.

The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening | Dr. William F. Gericke | 1940

The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening | Dr. William F. Gericke | 1940

In the introduction, Gericke hits back at the conclusions of Hoagland and Arnon laid out in Circular 347, saying that “Some scientists who failed to realize the import of natural and field conditions have compared yields from small hydroponic basins with those from basins of fertile soil, and also with those of sand treated with nutrient solutions, using the same number of plants each. In using the same number of plants in the hydroponic basin as in the soil, these experiments have made the mistake of limiting the productive capacity of hydroponics to that of soil. Comparison can be only by growing as great a number of plants in each case as the fertility of the culture medium can support.”

He also emphasizes that hydroponics isn’t yet a precise science and that much experimentation still needs to be accomplished while warning against exaggerated claims of the press and shady businessmen. Yet he goes on to say that the productive powers of hydroponics dwarf those of agriculture. He also foresees other benefits including preserving natural resources, or what he termed the “cycle of conservation.”

After America’s entry into World War II in late 1941, Gericke continued refining his techniques and in 1943, announced in the January 10th issue of the Oakland Tribune that “Because he believes that he can best serve his country by disseminating information about his agricultural ‘revolution,’ Dr. Gericke has opened to the public his experimental gardens at 1555 Scenic Avenue.”

He went on to state that “…his principal concern at present is that every backyard, however small or rocky, is converted to wartime production.” And beginning the following week, for the next 3 months every Sunday, Gericke in the Oakland Tribune published detailed information for the public on just how to carry out this task. Thousands visited his personal gardens as a result and countless soilless gardens were planted for the war effort.

In the next installment, we’ll visit in more detail how hydroponics helped the war effort and how the post-war years led to renewed interest by the public and commercial interests.


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