History of Hydroponics

Merle Jensen ISSN: 0253-7494

 A look back at the history of hydroponics

The Past:

  • Several hundred years B.C. – The Babylonians had hanging water culture gardens considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
  • Several hundred years B.C. – Egyptian hieroglyphs tell of the people growing plants in water culture.
  • Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.) – A Greek philosopher, performed experiments in crop nutrition.
  • During the 1st century A.D. – cucumbers were grown off-season for the Roman Emperor Tiberius using a “transparent rock” (presumably mica) covered structure (first known use of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)).
  • 1200’s and 1300’s (as described by the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo) – Floating gardens of the Chinese.
  • 1400’s – The Aztecs, who settled near Lake Tenochititlan (near the site of present day Mexico City), created gardens on floating rafts called “chinampas”.
  • NOTE:  During the past 400 years plant culture techniques were developed to study the mineral nutrition requirements of plants. These techniques, known as “water culture”, were the beginnings of what later became “hydroponics”.
  • 1600 – A Belgian, Jan Van Helmont, performed the earliest known experiments to determine the constituents of plants:  A 5 lb willow shoot planted in 200 lbs of soil was covered to keep dust out and watered with rain water for 5 years. The willow increased its weight to 160 lbs., but the soil lost only 2 oz. His conclusion: plants obtain substances from the water needed for growth.
  • 1699 – An Englishman, John Woodward, used various types of soil to grow plants. He found that the greatest growth occurred in water which contained the most soil. His conclusion: plant growth results from substances in the water derived from the soil, rather than from the water itself.
  • 1804 – N.T. de Saussure made the first quantitative measurements of photosynthesis and proposed that plants are composed of chemical elements obtained from soil, water, and air.
  • 1851 – The French chemist, Jean Boussingault, verified de Saussure’s proposal when he grew plants in insoluble artificial media such as sand, quartz and sugar charcoal plus solutions of known chemical composition. His conclusions:  plants require water and obtain hydrogen from it; plant dry matter contains hydrogen plus carbon and oxygen which comes from the air; plants contain nitrogen and other mineral nutrients.
  • 1860 & 1861 – Two German scientists, Julius von Sachs and another by the name of Knop, used “nutriculture”.  Today this is called water culture, a type of hydroponics. The roots were immersed in water that contained “salts” of nitrogen
(N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), sulfur (S) and calcium (Ca).  It was shown that these minerals were needed in large amounts by the plant, hence the term “macronutrients”. Both scientists devised nutrient solution recipes.
  • NOTE: 
From the 1860’s to the 1940’s several other scientists studied plant mineral nutrition using water culture and identified other minerals needed by plants in much smaller amounts. These are called “micronutrients” and include iron (Fe), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), boron (B), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu) and molybdenum (Mo).
  • During this time several plant nutrition scientists also developed nutrient recipes for optimum plant growth, including Hoagland (U.C. Berkley, 1919), Hoagland and Arnon (U.C. Berkley, 1938 – “The water-culture method for growing plants without soil”) and Robbins (Rutgers U. 1946).  D.R. Hoagland became so well known for his work in plant nutrient formulas that today it is common to refer to a nutrient solution recipe as a “MODIFIED HOAGLAND’S SOLUTION”
  • 1925 – 1935 – The greenhouse industry expressed an interest in using “nutriculture” instead of conventional soil culture because, over time, greenhouse soils would have problems with soil structure, fertility and pests. Small-scale laboratory
techniques were modified to accommodate large-scale commercial crop production.
  • 1930’s – W.F. Gericke (U.C. Berkley) experimented with nutriculture on a large scale and coined the term “hydroponics”, which is derived from two Greek words: “hydro” meaning “water” and “ponos” meaning “work”.  Literally = “water working”.
  • 1940’s (WWII) – The United States military used hydroponics to supply the troops stationed on isolated, non-arable islands in the Pacific.  After the war the U.S. Army built a 22 hectare hydroponic operation at Chofu, Japan.
  • 1950’s – Commercial hydroponic operations appeared throughout the world in Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, Sweden, the USSR and Israel. However, hydroponics was not widely accepted since the techniques used incorporated concrete growing beds which were expensive to construct.
  • 1970’s – With the advent of plastics an interest in hydroponics was renewed. Plastics began to be used as greenhouse covers, growing bed liners and in irrigation systems.  However, two new problems arose: Escalating oil prices in 1973 substantially increased heating and cooling costs AND there were few chemicals registered for pest control in greenhouses.  Increases in root pathogens (which when inadvertently introduced into a recirculating hydroponic system could spread to all the plants in the greenhouse), and an increase in aerial pests (which found a perfect environment to multiply in the climate controlled greenhouses) caused many operations to fail.
  • 1990 – There is a renewed interest in hydroponics.

modern hydroponics system current culture

Above: a modern hydroponics system, 2013, Current Culture Hydroponics