Fish have held an important place in human history. They were worshipped as gods in some cultures, prized as exotic creatures in others, and valued as a food source by poor and rich alike. Fishkeeping was first mentioned in Sumerian culture about 4,500 years ago, and aquariums have developed in complexity ever since. Modern technology has allowed the reef aquarium hobby to explode in popularity and complexity.
Fish in Ancient History
The Mesopotamian god, Ea, was believed to live in the ocean under the earth. He was revered as the god who rescued humanity from a great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Sobek was revered as the Egyptian crocodile god of the Nile River. He appeared in texts as early as 2686 BC. Chinese mythology from before 221 BC claims the god Gong Gong caused floods. The Bible, Quran, and Bhagavad Gita all have verses mentioning fish.
Fish and other aquatic life were revered in many places, but they also had an important function as food sources. Many of the earliest artificial fish ponds mentioned in Sumerian, Roman and Chinese texts, were used to grow or temporarily store live fish for meals. As these ancient civilizations developed, people began to keep fish for entertainment as well as food.
Naturalism Fuels the Victorian Aquarium Fad
The aquarium hobby grew rapidly in the 17th and 18th centuries, fueled by naturalism and the development of science. Johann Bechstein (1757-1822), Nathaniel Ward (1791-1868) and Felix Dujardin (1802-1860) were biologists who developed tanks that contained fish, plants, and small animals. Anne Thynne kept one of the first balanced aquariums in 1846 and published an article on keeping Madrepore stony corals in 1859. Robert Warington wrote about maintaining a stable aquarium in 1850.
At the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, fish and aquatic plants were displayed in aquariums with cast-iron frames. Large public aquariums were built at the London zoo in 1853 and at the zoological garden in Paris in 1860. People were fascinated with being able to see marine life up close, and interest in keeping a home aquarium soared. Philip Henry Gosse coined the term aquarium in his 1854 book titled The Aquarium: an Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep-Sea. George Sowerby contributed the Popular History of the Aquarium in 1857. Parlor aquariums quickly became a fad in the United Kingdom, and the craze spread rapidly to Germany then the United States.
Early developers of fish tanks faced the same problems modern aquarists face. They needed to filter the water, remove nitrogen, increase water flow, improved lighting, and maintain stable tank temperatures. The first aquarium air pump was created around 1908 in Germany to aerate tanks more efficiently. Reliable and stable electricity meant that artificial light, heaters, and motorized filtration units could now be added to fish tanks.
Twentieth Century Advances in Aquarium Technology
Aquarium technology expanded rapidly in the 20th century. Norbert Tunze and Erwin Sander produced the protein skimmer in 1963, which was a great improvement over the previous crude under gravel filters. Tunze is also credited with creating the Turbelle, the first commercial power head creating water flow in aquariums. Eugen Jager invented the first reliable submersible electric tank heater in the 1960s. In addition, artificial salt mixes were developed. These advances allowed more people to be able to keep tropical species of fish and coral successfully.
The aquarium hobby developed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s with all the technological improvements and information exchanges by hobbyists through magazine articles and the Internet. By the end of the century, aquarium equipment had improved so much that rare fish species and unusual corals could be kept alive reliably for a long time.
As the year 2000 approached, Lee Chin Eng proposed a natural methodology to reduce the amount of equipment in the fish tank. He used live rock, natural sunlight, and regularly replaced seawater to create his aquarium. While this method was not as practical for people who did not have easy access to seawater, it did provide information on ways to decrease the amount of technology needed to maintain a healthy aquarium.
Aquarium hobbyists tend to be very concerned about the environment in general, and there is now a lot of work being done on breeding coral and fish in captivity. This will reduce or eliminate destruction of wild coral reefs. It will also allow people to purchase colorful tropical species fish without depleting wild populations.
Keeping fish tanks is one of the most popular hobbies in the world. With ever-increasing knowledge, aquariums will become even more varied and successful.
Aquarium Wikipedia entry. Retrieved 14 Feb 2014.
Brunner, Bernd. The Ocean at Home. Trans. Ashley Marc Slapp. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2011.
“History of Aquarium Keeping,” Aquarium Design. Retrieved 14 Feb 2014.
Vitko, R. “A History of the Hobby,” Reefkeeping Magazine. Sep 2004, retrieved 14 Feb 2014.
“Welcome to the Aquarium History Home Page,” ParlourAquariums.org.uk. Retrieved 14 Feb 2014.