Hydroponics History Part 2

The Birth of Hydroponics

by Jeff Edwards

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 the importance of balance between the various elements in a nutritive solution.

In 1915, John W. Shive published “A Three-Salt Nutrient Solution For Plants,” where the writer tested 84 differently proportioned nutrient solutions, and showing that Tottingham’s formula indeed was superior to the four salt nutrient solution devised earlier by Knop. Research into nutrient solutions continued however, and in fact B.E. Livingston and W.E. Tottingham together published “A New Three-Salt Nutrient Solution for Plant Cultures” in July of 1918.

Studies were also being conducted on areas separate from the composition of nutrient solutions. In November of 1917, a paper by Walter Stiles and Ingvar Jorgensen appeared in The New Phytologist, “Observations On The Influence Of Aeration Of The Nutrient Solution In Water Culture Experiments, With Some Remarks On The Water Culture Method.” In 1916, Orton L. Clark published in Science Volume 44, No 1146 “A Method for Maintaining a Constant Volume of Nutrient Solutions,” recognizing the implications to solution strength and balance the effects of evaporation and transpiration have.

Dennis Robert Hoagland | Hydroponics History

Dennis Robert Hoagland

At the University of California at Berkeley’s Agricultural Research Station were several scientists engaged in the active research of water culture and nutrient solutions. These included Dennis Robert Hoagland, who began his career at UC in 1913, and who later served as Professor of Plant Nutrition from 1927 until his death in 1949. Hoagland’s primary focus was initially soil based, yet his studies of kelp led to an extended period of investigation into exactly how plants absorb nutrients.

This work definitively established that absorption of minerals by plants is a metabolic process and not just a physical one defined by permeability, osmosis, and the like. In the course of these studies, Hoagland successfully grew many different types of plants with a nutrient solution formula he developed that would be used worldwide as the standard for decades to come. However, he also emphasized that the solution formula that bore his name was not the end of the matter. He was often quoted as saying that there is no such thing as the “best” nutrient solution and that adjustments would always be necessary based on such things as plant variety and environment.

Hoagland also contributed much knowledge in understanding the relationship of pH to plants grown in nutrient solutions as well as showing how important free oxygen around the root system is. As well he played an important part in identifying the further plant nutrient elements necessary above and beyond the ten known by 1920, particularly molybdenum.

Also on the staff at UC, beginning in 1912, was a Nebraska born associate plant physiologist by the name of William Frederick Gericke. Educated at the University of Nebraska, Iowa State College of Agriculture, John Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the University of California, Gericke research entitled “On the physiological balance in nutrient solutions for plant cultures,” was published in the April, 1922 issue of the American Journal of Botany. In the October 13, 1922 issue of the publication Science, Gericke had published a Special Article on “Water Culture Experimentation” outlining his research growing wheat using single salt solutions during different phases of plant growth versus well-balanced nutrient solutions throughout.

William F. Gericke | Father of Hydroponics

William F. Gericke

Gericke continued his research at the university over the next decade, primarily engaged in studying grains including wheat and rice. Examples of his papers published during the last half of the 1920’s include “Salt Requirements of Wheat at Different Growth Phases”, “Adaptation of Rice to Forty Centuries of Agriculture,” and perhaps tellingly, in 1930, a paper entitled “Excessive Tax on Soil Fertility by Crop Production on Poor Land.”

Much attention and credit is given to a short 200 word article by Gericke, published in the December, 1929 issue of the American Journal of Botany entitled “Aquaculture: A means of Crop-production,” wherein he describes, in the simplest of terms, the successful construction of growing reservoirs in which cartridges of plant food were added, and several different kinds “… of floral, vegetables, and field plants were grown. Results obtained called for serious consideration of this method for production of certain crops grown on an intensive scale.” This article is often credited as being the first to draw attention to the commercial potential of soilless crop production.

However, further research shows that public announcements of his work with the soilless growth of plants actually came earlier than previously thought. Not only was Gericke a gifted scientist, he was keenly attuned to the power the press had in helping to promote ideas. His first experiments on the commercial potential of soilless culture began simultaneously at his home in Berkeley and in the campus greenhouse, a fact that would ultimately come back to haunt him later in his career.

On April 1st, 1928, The San Bernadino County Sun published a short article entitled “Food Pills to Grow Plants in Water, Is Professor’s Claim.” In the article, Gericke says that the future gardener could grow his vegetables and flowers in simple jars of water in which “food pills,” bound cylindrical capsules containing combinations of seven essential plant nutrients are added to the water. These food pills would come also to be known as “plant pills” in future articles.

In late April of that year, several short articles distributed throughout the country by the Associated Press, clearly state that on April 25, 1928, “In announcing his discovery today, Gericke said flowers produced by the soilless method are sturdier, more delicately colored, and less subject to mildew than those grown under ordinary conditions.” Headlines included “Grows Plants In Water: Chemicals Better Than Soil, Expert Says” and “Can Grow Plants Without Soil!”

Plants Grow Without Sun or Soil; Chemicals Replace Earth in Test | Hydroponics History

Headline from The Anniston Star, May 27, 1928

A few days later, on May 27th and June 3rd respectively, major stories published in Alabama’s The Anniston Star and California’s Santa Ana Register delved deeper into his research on soilless farming, and in fact highlighted the work Gericke was conducting by growing plants under artificial light. Under the Anniston Star headline “Plants Grow Without Sun or Soil; Chemicals Replace Earth In Test,” the article not only talks about the plant food pills, it also goes into how a battery of 300-candlepower argon-filled lamps are used by Gericke to grow wheat. The lighting remained on for 16 hours per day, generating rapid growth, and doubling the number of lights quadrupled the growth rate, the article claimed. “The experiment proved that all the sun rays essential to plant growth were present in the electric glares.”

On June 29, Gericke announced that he would be demonstrating his methods of raising plants without soil while on a European tour with lectures being given in France, Sweden, England, Germany, Austria and Holland. On December 13, reports tell that he had returned to the Berkeley campus after his tour of research stations throughout Europe, and that he “…plans to continue his work on artificial plant nutrition until every phase of the investigation is completed and the adoption of the system by commercial growers made easy.”

By 1929, it seemed that Gericke’s spat of publicity was waning. Save for a few recycled articles about plant pills that appeared late in the year, Gericke’s work received very little press until October, when a four page feature article entitled “Plant ‘Pills’ Grow Bumper Crops” authored by H.H. Dunn appeared in Popular Science Monthly, a hugely popular magazine at the time.

Plant Pills Grow Bumper Crops, Popular Science Monthly, October, 1929 | Hydroponics History

Headline from October, 1929 Popular Science Monthly

The article opens with the proclamation that “…through the use of a chemical “plant pill,” administered to plants grown in shallow tanks of water, cereal and vegetable crops now are made to thrive under desert conditions of heat, arid soil, and lack of humidity.” It goes on to point out that five thousand experiments over the past five years have resulted in this discovery.

The same article gives specific examples of his experiment results, saying that the size of asparagus stalks grown with the method increased nearly 100 percent; that potatoes increased in size by half again, and that the yield of tomato plants could be increased by 40 percent. Experiments with wheat, cotton, tobacco, and cabbage showed similar results. Cotton cultivated in water could be harvested sooner.

The article further states, “…from these results, Dr. Gericke and his assistants, with the backing of the University of California, started experiments with tank production of food crops, to figure costs of such production on a commercial scale.” Many examples are given of the economic and production benefits achieved and offers convincing thoughts on the potential for farming food in areas of the world where it was not now achievable.

The article ends with Dr. Gericke quoted as follows, “… an area less than one-fourth that which, in my boyhood days, supplied the ‘garden truck’ for the family, will produce foodstuffs of variety, quality, quantity and value never dreamed of by the home gardener. Incidentally, the labor required will be only a small fraction of that needed for proper tilling of the soil. This, it seems to me, is the greatest value of the five years of experiments we have been conducting — that millions may be fed from water, on soils that hitherto have produced nothing but an occasional clump of cacti, or a few fig trees.”

Despite the publicity generated by the Popular Science Monthly article, Gericke still had a lot of work to do to bring his ideas to fruition. Gericke had decided to focus his efforts on the practical application of what he had learned to date and on June 27, 1933, W.F. Gericke obtained a U.S. patent (No. 1,915,884) for a “Fertilizing unit for growing plants in water.” Soon afterwards, he was installing his equipment in California greenhouses and arranging for agriculture research stations in other parts of the country to try it as well.

In early 1936, famous inventor Arthur Pillsbury, an early water culture enthusiast in his own right, and an expert in photography, particularly time-lapse photography, visited Dr. Gericke in California to take many high-quality photos of Gericke’s phenomenal results, and Gericke was then able to distribute to the press and other interested parties for publication with their articles about his work. In addition, Mr. Pillsbury created a motion picuture featuring his time lapse photography and the photogenic results of Gerickes efforts. Gericke also embarked on a publicity campaign that included live demonstrations and speaking engagements where he showed his moving pictures to generate further interest in his discoveries, which he believed would revolutionize age-old concepts of agriculture.

On September 24th of that same year, the Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon reported that Dr. Gericke had installed a tank farming system on the roof of the canning plant of George Brehm of Seattle. In the same article is the quote, “…this culture tank is designated a hydroponicum.” This is one of, if not the first printed reference to a variation of the term ‘hydroponics,’ ultimately adopted by Gericke.

William F. Gericke and his wife show off greenhouse tomato crop grown with hydroponics.

William F. Gericke and his wife show off greenhouse hydroponic tomato crop.

Thanks to the power of the image and exaggerated claims the press was all too willing to spread, articles with pictures of Gericke’s work began appearing across the country, and spreading around the world, as far away as Australia and Japan. Along with these press reports came a slew of requests for further information on this exciting new method of farming. Gericke, however, initially discouraged these requests, stating that such queries distracted him from his work and do little, because he was not in a place at the time to share this information, and in fact “…resolutely declines to permit his system to be promoted and handled on a large scale by strangers.”

Yet, during this same period, Gericke was searching for a unique, relevant and memorable name for his new farming technique and, referring to his 1929 first paper on the topic, he fancied the term “aquaculture.” Quoted in Science, Gericke says his work “…may be considered as the birth of a new art and perchance a new science which should be designated by a distinctive name.”

Dr. William Albert Setchell | Suggested the term 'hydroponics' to William F. Gericke

Dr. William Albert Setchell

However, the American-Fish Cultural Association had used that term to describe the breeding of fish as far back as the late 1800’s. And while Dr. Gericke is widely credited with adopting the term “hydroponics” as an alternative, he did not actually come up with it himself. That honor went to his associate, Dr. William Albert Setchell, a Professor of Botany at UC, who suggested the term met Gericke’s requirements. “Hydroponics is from the Greek “hydro,” or water, and “ponos,” or labor, and is comparable to geoponics, by which agriculture was once designated. It meets the requirements of the philologers; it is easily pronounceable.”

And so, on February 12th, 1937, the term “hydroponics” was first introduced to the public in a Science magazine article, “…to mean the raising of vegetables, flowers, and fruit without soil, in tanks of warmed, fertilized water. The new name is proposed by the originator of this system, hitherto known by the colloquial nickname of “dirtless farming,” Prof. W. F. Gericke of the University of California.”

The next installment of The History of Hydroponics will cover the explosive growth, application, and misrepresentation of Gericke’s ‘hydroponics’, including the application of hydroponics by state Agricultural Research Stations, Pan American Airways, and the United States military.

Click here for History of Hydroponics Part 3 – Applying Water-Culture Science to Hydroponic Food Production


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