Growers Network Staff

November 12, 2018 4 min read
November 12, 2018
4 min read

The History of Hydroponics

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In this Growers Network article, we explore the history of hydroponics as we know it. We did research into the many scattered claims around the internet, and found that other “histories” were not quite up to our standards.

If you have any questions related to hydroponics history, a correction to make (with citations), or any additional information you think this article would benefit from, feel free to comment below!


Early History


From early civilizations to the dawn of philosophy…

Early human tribes and societies were interested in plants for two primary reasons: Food and medicine. Survival was the most important thing at the time, leaving scientific inquiry as a luxury.

Use of plants for food purposes is known as agriculture. The advent of farming in human history signalled the start of civilization as we know it around 6000 BCE in what is referred to as the “Neolithic Revolution.” (1)

The use of medicinal plants and herbs us typically referred to as “herbalism.” As people began to learn more about plants, herbalism became part of botany and medicine.

Hydroponics is largely the result of combining the scientific knowledge gleaned from botany and herbalism with the practical methods employed in agriculture.


Chewing the bark of a willow tree provides effects similar to aspirin.


Beginnings of Botany

500 BCE to 1000 CE


Initial attempts at understanding plants and how to control them…

Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 371 to 287 BCE, and was a student of Aristotle. Greek philosophers were some of the first “scientists,” because science and philosophy had not diverged into separate fields yet.


Theophrastus

Theophrastus’ work was the biggest contribution to botanical knowledge for centuries, until the Middle Ages (7). His most famous works were Enquiry into Plants (also known as Historia Plantarum) and On the Causes of Plants.

His works are often divided into several books that make up the whole of his work. Enquiry into Plants is divided into three books, and is the most relevant to hydroponics.

  1. The first book attempted to categorize plants based on their properties. It also describes simple plant anatomy.
  2. The second book described plants changing into other species of plants if they are left alone. This is a typical error of Greek philosophers, who made assumptions about events occurring because they didn’t observe a change.
  3. The third book described all wild trees growing either from seeds or from roots. This was in direct opposition to the prevailing theory at the time, known as spontaneous generation. Spontaneous generation states that life can come from nothing.
  4. The last 6 books discuss specific plants and their properties and uses.

While his works exhibited the errors typical of Greek philosophers, Theophrastus brought attention to the importance of roots to a plant.


Middle Ages

1000 CE to 1400 CE


While the Middle Ages weren’t known for their advanced science, there were advancements…

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a merchant famous for documenting his travels around the known world. (10) He was originally from Venice, an Italian city-state.

Dashing.

While he was not the first European to visit China, he was the first to document his trip there and what he experienced.

In his writings, he describes “Chinese floating gardens,” but it is not entirely clear what this meant. It is likely this is a misunderstanding of Chinese farming methods or gardening techniques.

  1. Rice paddies and other farms were regularly flooded, and Marco Polo may not have known this, thus considering it a floating garden.
  2. Traditional Chinese gardens include water features close to the roots of plants. Marco Polo may have seen this as a floating garden.

What Marco Polo likely saw.


The Renaissance

1400 CE to 1700 CE


Logic and reason take root…

The first “active” greenhouses start to appear in Korean records in 1438 CE. An “active” greenhouse is a greenhouse with some kind of temperature control — either heating or cooling.

These early active greenhouses featured a heating system built underneath the greenhouse itself in order to continue growing during the cold winter months.


An illustration of an Ondol, a traditional Korean form of underfloor heating.


Age of Enlightenment

1700 CE to 1800 CE


The scientific method is developed and employed, leading to great advances…

Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) was an English theologian and natural philosopher. He is credited as the one who discovered oxygen in 1774.

Priestly also explored other gases, with an unusual tendency to call them “airs” which he described in his work Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air. (13) Part of the reasoning for calling gases airs, contrary to the prior discoveries of Jean Baptist van Helmont, was that he subscribed to a different theory called “Phlogiston theory.” The outdated theory proposed that a combustible “phlogiston” is contained within anything that is combustible, and released upon combustion.

In his works, he describes “airs” such as:

  1. Nitrous Air (Nitric Oxide, NO)
  2. Acid Air (Hydrochloric Acid, HCl)
  3. Alkaline Air (Ammonia, NH3)
  4. Dephlogisticated nitrous air (Nitrous Oxide, N2O)
  5. Dephlogisticated air (Oxygen, O2)


Victorian Era

1800 CE to 1900 CE


Peace, prosperity, and great wealth allow for further advancement…

By the early 1800s, the basics of photosynthesis were understood. Plants absorb Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Water (H2O) to make Sugars (C6H12O6) and Oxygen (O2) by using the energy provided by sunlight.

Plant cells with visible chloroplasts.

Without this knowledge, growing plants hydroponically would be significantly more difficult. Growing hydroponically often requires more controlled conditions than growing outdoors in the soil.


World Wars

1900 CE to 1950 CE


Necessity is the mother of invention…

William Frederick Gerricke was a US scientist from UC Berkeley. He is largely considered the father of modern hydroponics, and coined the terms aquaculture and hydroponics.


Dr. Gericke’s book. If so inclined, it is available on Amazon.

Dr. Gericke caused quite a stir when tomato vines growing hydroponically in his back yard grew to over 25 feet tall using solely hydroponic methods.(19)


Contemporary

1950 CE to Today


What now? Exploring recent developments since the 50s.

In the 1960s, Dr. Allan Cooper would invent the “Nutrient Film Technique,” (22) where a water and nutrient solution would continuously flow past plant roots held in a medium. This was a fundamentally different innovation from past hydroponic techniques, which were generally drain-to-waste, ebb-and-flow, or deep water culture techniques.

Nutrient Film technique relies on a constant flow of water and nutrient solution, and is therefore dependent on electricity, but it is also relatively simple to automate without computer controls. It is very sensitive to disruptions in water and nutrient flow, and plants downstream get fewer nutrients, but this technique also for much more active monitoring and control over the growing process, a trend we see today in indoor cannabis cultivation.


References:

 
 
 

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21798934

(2) http://www.pnas.org/content/108/20/8351

(3) https://www.dur.ac.uk/news/newsitem/?itemno=5773

(4) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/advice/What-are-the-seven-wonders-of-the-world/

(5) http://www.anobii.com/books/Babylon/9780714111711/015ec1dc31a01505b2

(6) https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Hanging-Garden-Babylon-Elusive/dp/0199662266/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472256190&sr=1-1

(7) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Theophrastus

(8) http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/100/7/1441

(9) https://books.google.com/books?id=IUoMAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA156#v=onepage&q=selenite&f=false

(10) https://books.google.hr/books?id=x-PZdFbG6dEC

(11) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jan-Baptista-van-Helmont

(12) http://www.cropsreview.com/van-helmont.html

(13) https://archive.org/details/experimentsobser01prie

(14) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Senebier

(15) http://www.cropsreview.com/jean-senebier.html

(16) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nicolas-Theodore-de-Saussure

(17) https://www.jstor.org/stable/986146?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

(18) http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Julius_von_Sachs.aspx

(19) http://farmertyler.com/blog/hydrohistory

(20) http://www.worldcat.org/title/water-culture-method-for-growing-plants-without-soil/oclc/12406778

(21) https://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/23/obituaries/daniel-arnon-84-researcher-and-expert-on-photosynthesis.html

(22) https://www.hort.vt.edu/ghvegetables/documents/Hydroponics/Nutrient%20Film%20Technique%20Lettuce_LMorgan.pdf

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About the Author

Hunter Wilson is a community builder with Growers Network. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a Masters in Teaching and in 2007 with a Bachelors in Biology.