As domesticated plants became a crucial food source for ancient man, nomadic hunter gatherer cultures were replaced by agriculturally-based civilizations. Today, the technology that allowed humans to build and sustain large populations threatens to become an insufficient method of sustaining them. This dilemma has driven the development of an alternative means of growing food known as hydroponics. Although rapid development of this practice is a recent phenomenon, history shows that it has been a long time in the making.
Near Monterey, California, 20th century Paleobiologists identified evidence of kelp and algae in the fossil record dating as far back as the Vendian Period. This proves that anywhere between 650 to 540 million years ago, plants were growing in the world’s oceans that were not rooted in the silt of the seabed. This criteria supports the fundamental principle behind the history of hydroponics -- in the right circumstances, flora can flourish without soil.
Innovation in Babylon
It was not until recently that mankind began working towards synthesizing the process of soilless plant growth. Writings from the 5th Century BCE historian Herodotus describe an innovative irrigation system in Babylon. A subsequent 3rd century BCE historian named Berossus tell of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It has been suggested by many that one was used to facilitate the other. Much later in the late 13th century circa 1275, the explorer Marco Polo reported seeing “floating gardens” during his travels across China.
Two centuries later in Mesoamerica, the Aztec civilization developed similar floating agricultural technology called Chinampas. These gardens built on rafts of rushes and reeds helped rectify the disparity between a growing population and a shrinking availability of farmable land.
A Gradual Process
Although these instances of alternative cultivation were not be purely hydroponic, they were a series of departures from the conventional practice of planting seeds into stationary plots of land. Granted, all involved soil as the means for delivering essential nutrients. Yet, each example provided further evidence that, in the right conditions, plants could adapt to the will of their caretakers.
An Industrious Academic
The next movement in the history of hydroponics was started by a plant nutritionist and driven by the intrinsic adaptability of plant life. In 1929, Dr. William Frederick Gericke of the University of California Berkeley made a series of definitive scientific observations about soilless cultivation. He successfully grew large amounts of potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, gladioli, begonias and other flora using nutrient-rich water and by replacing soil with a chemically inert growing medium. He combined the Greek words “hydro” -- meaning water and “ponics” -- meaning work, and thus coined the term “Hydroponics.” Soon after, he published the definitive text on the subject entitled “The Complete guide to Soilless Gardening.”
… to be continued …
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By Luke Schmaltz