When Did Hydroponics Start?

by Lettuce Be | Last Updated:

There is a great deal of variety in our ideas about modern hydroponics—however, many view hydroponics as modern technology. The truth is that hydroponics has been around for a long time. Hydroponics has evolved a lot since its beginning, but that usually occurs over thousands of years. It is important to understand the history of hydroponics to appreciate our modern hydroponics’ legacy.

The Beginning of Hydroponics

the start of hydroponicsIn 500 B.C.E., King Nebuchadnezzar II built one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, the hanging gardens of Babylon, to give to his wife, Amyitis. Ancient scholars and archaeologists studied the intricate systems of watering the gardens for years. Water was delivered to the plants from central reservoirs in a steady flow through elaborately tiered stone gardens. Consistently flowing water to the roots of the plants provided plenty of aeration and food for them.

Even though these hanging gardens are still legends, there has been no archaeological discovery of them; historians have well documented them. Hydroponic gardening is not difficult even for the novice hydroponic gardener to understand from the quote above.

Hydroponics in Asia

Rice has been grown hydroponically for nearly as long as it has been a harvested crop in Asia. Your mind probably conjures up images of the vast rice paddies scattered around China. The assessment is fairly accurate, to be honest. While things like scale, spacing, and harvesting have changed somewhat, they’ve changed by only a small amount. Rice is grown using the same main process.

In the early days of rice farming, soil was used to grow rice. Despite the difficulty of this, rice produced a good return on investment. Several other crops were destroyed after significant seasonal flooding. Despite the wet conditions, though, rice flourished. Hydroponic rice farming took off when this spark was lit. Several water systems were organized to grow rice after this revelation. As an added benefit to hydroponic cultivation, rice resisted disease and pests more efficiently than other crops.

The use of hydroponics in China has continued to develop, as evidenced by additional documentation. The Chinese had adopted hydroponics from being used just for rice farming to being used for aesthetic reasons when Marco Polo’s travels began in the 13th century. Floating gardens, described by Polo, were floating platforms in the water.

Furthermore, rice fields were used for hydroponic harvests, but they also provided more diverse food sources. Our modern definition of aquaponics includes hydroponic systems in which fish are kept, sometimes in commercial settings, to produce fish. China and Indochina have established similar systems. Floating rice paddies used for crop production were used for raising and farming fish.

Aquaponics

Modern aquaponic farming employs the same similar principles historically used in rice fields, though with a bit more nuanced and more technology. An aquaponic system uses a fish tank to hold the water solution instead of a reservoir in a typical hydroponic system. In a grow tray, or on a plant bed, water is moved by a pump. The plant roots filter a portion of the excess water (safe for the fish again). Once the nutrients are added to the water, the plants above receive them as well.

Hydroponics in Egypt

The fact that it isn’t as well known doesn’t make it any less true. Several hundred years ago, the ancient Egyptians relied on the Nile to grow crops hydroponically. Archaeologists have found records detailing the methods and uses of these early hydroponic methods.
Sadly, hydroponic pyramids don’t live up to our expectations. Despite that, hieroglyphs have been discovered that tell the story of a people who used the flooding Nile River to grow crops without soil.

Roman Hydroponics

Toward the end of the first century, archaeologists found evidence of hydroponic use in Rome. Despite all of his transgressions, Roman Emperor Tiberius is the first (that we know of) to implement more complex hydroponic systems in the western world successfully. Although it wasn’t widely used for growing crops, he enjoyed some cucumbers out of season.
According to the Romans, plants passed through ‘clear stones’ and were nourished with water. The ‘clear stone’ was certainly their form of growing aid, although exactly what it remained a mystery to us. The translucent stone is still debated, but some people believe it was some growing medium.

The most likely explanation for this translucent stone is that it was an early kind of greenhouse. The off-season cucumbers would have received adequate heat, light, and humidity using a clear material (like stone or glass).

The Aztecs

The Aztecs were another notable civilization that used hydroponic farming. To provide their people with plenty of food, they designed and built an impressive hydroponic system. Because of their environment of swampy lands and nomadic culture, hydroponics was developed from necessity. In these regions, traditional farming wasn’t feasible because there was very little, if any, suitable land.

Aquaponic systems, like the Aztec variety, are similar to floating raft farms. Their settlements could float crops in the canals around them by building dense rafts of reeds and rushes and securing them with dry roots. The canals were filled with crops and gardens instead of fields. Roots extended through the bottom of the rafts to reach the water below after dredging up nutrient-rich silt from the river’s bottom or canal.

The best comparison we can make between the Chinampas and the hydroponic systems we’re familiar with today is DWC, or deep water culture, systems.

The roots of the crops are suspended in nutrient-rich water below a growth tray or platform in a deep water culture system. DWC systems often require an airstone or an additional air pump to maintain adequate aeration. A nutrient formula is submerged in netted pots in which roots are held.

Modern Hydroponic Development

With the attempts to understand a hydroponic setup, what we might now consider more modern hydroponics had its origins. Though we could debate what ‘modern hydroponics’ is for days, let’s stick to the simple approach. We’ll agree that ancient hydroponics didn’t rely on quantitative, scientific analysis to avoid a wormhole debate. To use another analogy, modern hydroponics began with the measurement, analysis, and modification of existing hydroponic systems.
Although at different times and for different reasons, many scientists, farmers, and other innovators came to similar conclusions about plant growth, physiology, and hydroponics over time. Keeping that in mind, note that mentions of discoveries that were repeated or ‘rediscovered’ aren’t in error; they’re simply a result of our ebbing and flowing development.

Hydroponic Developments: 1600s to 1800s.

People began creating weatherproofing methods and increasing crop harvesting capacity in the 1600s. This growing interest in more advanced harvesting methods signaled the beginning of more advanced hydroponic techniques, however.

The growing of plants without soil was the subject of the first ‘modern’ book published by Sir Francis Bacon. Sadly, Sylva Sylvarum wasn’t published until 1627, the year after he died. Sir Francis Bacon has a lot to do with the popularity of hydroponic research that followed.

It wouldn’t happen again until 1699 for hydroponics to make a breakthrough. In this phase of the experiment, John Woodward was growing spearmint a soilless culture. His publication noted that hydroponic plants grew better in less pure water (instead of distilled water).

Hydroponics did not see much innovation in the next century. Despite this, manure-heated greenhouses were invented in the 1700s, which helped contribute to the rise of heated greenhouses.

The Future of Hydroponics

Scientists started to get it after centuries of attempting to understand a different form of hydroponics with ‘simple’ methods. There were many discoveries made in the 18th century that led to the further development of hydroponics.

By about 1842, they had identified nine nutrients that they believed were necessary for plant growth. Even though it wasn’t perfect, they weren’t too far off. Realizing that you could add mineral elements and nutrients to the plants’ water, they began growing soilless crops of vegetables.

Jean Baptiste Boussingault confirmed this list of essential elements required to grow leafy greens in 1851. His research also led to the development of what we now call ‘growing mediums.’ For planting, he used inert materials like charcoal, quartz, pure sand, and pure sand. In addition, Boussingault recorded chemical solutions he used for nourishing healthy plants. This is a given. Fresh water is needed. Despite this, he did a good job of calculating the other nutrient needed: nitrogen.

After that, he started thinking about the minerals needed in what ratios. You’re likely familiar with this if you’ve purchased hydroponic nutrient solutions for your hydroponic system.
Hydroponic principles didn’t make many other advances besides the realization that plants needed mineral nutrients. Nevertheless, this discovery contributed to the development of improved plant food, similar to hydroponic fertilizers throughout history.

Early 20th Century Hydroponics Technology

Even though hydroponics is a household term today, this ‘soilless culture’ was only given that name relatively recently. While initially calling it aquaculture, William F. Gericke, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, later realized that the term had already been used to refer to aquatic organisms and creatures’ cultures. Therefore, he chose hydroponics.
Experts increasingly studied plant physiology and techniques for crop growth from 1925 to 1935. Despite the early development of greenhouses, they were costly construction and never took off. Concrete was still used to construct the growing beds, which became expensive.
Hydroponics, however, gained global recognition due to the high costs associated with food production. During the Second World War, transporting food to troops overseas was also expensive. In fact, instead of becoming less popular, hydroponics spread to the Pacific and South Atlantic. Thus, hydroponics became more popular and provided troops stationed there with economically grown crops.

Greenhouse Hydroponics

Due to the emergence of plastic in the 1950s and all its applications, greenhouses saw a surge in popularity. The material plastic became a staple in creating greenhouses, plant factories, and even home hydroponic growing systems.

As a result, greenhouse hydroponics systems were never developed much by heavy, expensive materials such as glass used in concrete. With the advent of this newer, cheaper material (plastic, of course), many innovations were possible. Because plastic is dynamically used in hydroponic technology, many new and important components have been created. Other innovations were introduced due to this, including drip irrigation, filters, and a water reservoir.

The popularity of hydroponics boomed as a result of this greater accessibility and reduced cost. In the end, these efforts led to huge investments in hydroponic systems.

Drip irrigation also gained popularity with the rise in plastic and hydroponic greenhouses. Because drip systems are easy to use, effective, and inexpensive, they are still a common hydroponic farm today.