The Aquarium History
2500BC… Fish have been kept by humans since at least 2500 BC, when the Sumerians kept them in ponds for food.
Ancient Egypt… The first humans known to have kept fish for pleasure rather than eating were the ancient Egyptians. Fish such as Elephantnoses form a large part of the hieroglyphics of tomb art.
Ancient Rome… There is evidence that fish also were collected, along with the animals kept for “blood sports”. The fish were kept in ponds (with a water flow from the sea) by the rich and powerful men of the Roman Empire.
One of the examples given is Hortensius, who felt that it was more important that his fish were fed than his slaves. Another record exists of a wealthy Roman named Hirrius, who loved a pet moray eel, and decorated it with jewelry. When it died, he mourned its death as if it were his child.
Aristotle… (384-322 B.C.) started documenting the science of fish (Ichthyology) by writing about habits and defining local fish species. Aristotle had a fairly accurate knowledge of the general structure of fish and he correctly distinguishing them from aquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins.
His information on the habits of fish, their special adaptations and breeding has proved to be surprisingly accurate. However, it is not easy to recognise the species he was describing because his idea of a species was vague and he adopted the nomenclature of the local fishermen.
It never occurred to Aristotle that local popular names change from generation to generation and from one locality to another. His world of ichthyology was limited to about 115 species, all of them living in the Aegean Sea.
The Aquarium History: the Goldfish…
China 10th century… The “humble” Carassius Auratus – Goldfish is probably the single most important contributor to the popularity of aquariums and ornamental fish.
960… Goldfish keeping was first documented during the Sung Dynasty in China. Ponds stocked with Goldfish were gaining in popularity among the privileged from 968 – 975 and eating the fish was strictly prohibited.
1136… Emperor Hiau-Tsung started to breed and keep Goldfish in a more controlled environment. Several new varieties were bred, which helped make them popular and known throughout the country. Goldfish varieties were bred for colour, finnage and unusual traits.
1510… Goldfish were no longer a luxury for the privileged, but common among all people. Many houses and dwellings had ponds with Goldfish and breeding them flourished. It was very common to keep successful breeding techniques a secret.
1596… the very first formal fish essay The Book of the Vermillion Fish was written in China about keeping and breeding Goldfish.
1616… Goldfish arrive in Japan. Over time, the Japanese mastered the breeding of this fish. Japan is now the largest exporter of Goldfish worldwide.
1691… Goldfish make their appearance in Portugal, Europe. From Portugal, Goldfish arrived in England in 1728. At this time, the fish was popular throughout Europe’s privileged ruling class.
1780… Holland becomes the first country outside China and Japan to breed the goldfish.
1850… Goldfish reach the New World and were the main attraction of New York in 1865. With the success of the Goldfish, the first goldfish breeder of the US set-up in Maryland in 1888.
1758… Carolus Linnaeus publishes Systema naturae, in which he describes a binomial nomenclature (two name system) for naming all living things. The first name is the generic name, and the second identifies the species, giving each organism a unique identifier.
The Aquarium History: the modern term “aquarium”
1841… The modern term “aquarium” is used in writings for the first time. Glass tanks are an invention of the western world. The Romans used the word aquarium to mean any sort of reservoir for the purpose of containing water, such as that used for watering animals.
1853 in London… The London Zoological Society establishes the first public aquarium for the express purpose of displaying fish. Originally the London Zoo was only open to members and their guests. It took until 1940 to have this restriction removed (although it was still retained in Sundays for another 17 years).
At the time, the building was identified as “the world’s first public Marine and Fresh Water Vivarium”. By 1864, public aquariums have also opened in Hamburg and Paris. Because they didn’t really have the ability to keep “exotic” fish alive, most of the fish displayed were local and caught in nearby watercourses.
Within the next 15 years, several more public aquariums opened up around Britain. However, because of inadequate life support systems, the animals did not survive. Soon aquarists began to learn about aeration, filtering, water temperature, and storage of water for the living exhibit tanks.
The Aquarium History: the beginning of the aquarium hobby
1856… A groundbreaking essay called Sea in a Glass by Emil Adolf Roßmäßler was published in Germany. This work is recognised as the beginning of the aquarium hobby that we know today.
By 1856 there were aquarium attractions at the American Museum – some designed locally, others purchased in England. The exhibits were not part of a zoo or botanical garden, but of a collection of curiosities and freaks.
They featured attractions such as the “FeeJee Mermaid,” which was the top of a mummified monkey sewn on to the rear end of a fish. It was in this year that P T Barnum sponsored the first public aquarium in the United States.
1859… On 12 April the first advertisements for the Grand aquariums at the Boston Aquarial Gardens appeared in the Boston Post. They announced:
“This magnificent display of one of the most fascinating phenomena of nature is now open for public exhibition.” These Ocean Conservatories are filled with rare marine animals imported and collected exclusively for this Establishment. They present us with a perfect and striking illustration of LIFE BENEATH THE WATERS.”
4 July…. A handbill eloquently says of the Boston Aquarial Gardens:
“The scene is at once wonderful and intensely beautiful. Hours of delight may be spent watching the habitats of the animals, seizing and devouring their prey and disporting as freely as if they were still enjoying their full freedom in the ocean or river. To the student of Natural History, the aquariums present rare facilities for studying the habitats of the dwellers beneath the waters and no one can fail to be impressed with emotions of reverence for the Great Creator who has so ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made even the smallest of the finny Tribe that moves before this vision and thus look ‘from nature to nature’s God!’ No pen can describe the beauty of the brilliant Zoophytes which embody nearly every color and shade known to us. Many of these sea animals have every appearance of belonging to the vegetable kingdom and we experience sensations of wonder and delight as we behold these apparent plants and flowers extend their leaves and seize such prey as comes within their grasp.”
Forty tanks of between twenty and thirty gallons were arranged in a circle with a larger octagonal tank in the centre containing a pair of sturgeon and a school of perch. The glass of the tanks was more opaque than glass in aquariums today and visitors were advised to look through that part of the glass nearest to the object to prevent dizziness.
Although the water in the tanks was never changed, a series of aerators, designed and patented by James Cutting, kept the water well oxygenated. There was an attempt to recreate underwater scenery within the tanks by arranging rocks, sand, and seaweed in the form of groves and beaches.
1862… An aquarium is defined by the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge as:
“an artificial reservoir of water stocked with living animal and growing plants assorted in such quantities and proportions that all shall equally flourish, and moreover so arranged that whoever will may watch their habits and growth with pleasure and profit.”
1869… The Paradisefish (Macropodus opercularis) from Southeast Asia was the first “tropical” fish to be imported. From then on, more and more exotic fish were imported and shipped around the world.
1871-72… public aquariums in Blackpool, England and Frankfurt, Germany opened successfully.
1920s – 1930s… Fishkeeping rises in popularity after World War I, although it was still not a hobby for the less well-off.
1950s… It took many years to understand filtration. The 1950s saw the introduction of one of the first filters – the undergravel filter.
1952… Up until 1952, all fish kept in captivity where fed live food. Dr. Baensch (of Tetra fame) revolutionised the hobby by inventing flake foods. From there on there was no stopping the fishkeeping hobby.
1960s… Silicone sealant is introduced as a bonding material to manufacture aquariums. This helped to significantly reduce the cost and brought fishkeeping within reach of many more people.
The Aquarium History: From then to Today…
Early tanks were made by securing panes of glass into a frame using putty. They were very expensive and reserved for the rich. Early tropical aquariums were heated using an open flame fueled by kerosene and alcohol that was placed underneath the aquarium and heated the slate bottom of the tank. Filters were noisy, large and expensive.
Water chemistry was poorly understood and water conditioners were nonexistent. Fish suffered from dietary deficiencies because of the poor variety of food. Reliable information concerning the fish – size, care, breeding, feeding and behaviour was hard to come by.
Only a small variety of fish was available and of these only a few were well documented. Almost all fish were wild caught, with very few being captive bred. Deaths durng transportation were high, making fishkeeping a very expensive hobby, undertaken by the rich or the scientifically inclined.
The past half decade has seen an enormous surge in invention and understanding. This increased knowledge and techonoly, coupled with advances in air travel to bring fish to us from all over the world, have helped make fishkeeping the popular and enjoyable hobby it is today.
What a change to the fishkeeping of today. Fishkeeping is an enjoyable and relaxing hobby for people of all ages. There is a lot of information available about a wide range of fish and many of the fish are able to be bred – even in the home aquarium.
Fishkeeping is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, coming in secondonly to photography. It is one of the few hobbies that relaxes the hobbyist after a hectic day at work, while adding to the appearance of any room. It is a great learning tool for the next generation of fishkeepers.
Fishkeeping, whether it’s freshwater or saltwater, teaches children about the different species of fish and how they live and interact with each other, the diseases they contract, and also about different water chemistries. Most importantly though it teaches them just how fragile underwater life is and what measures need to be taken to guarantee that it survives.
Unfortunately, many new fishkeepers find it hard to ask for and accept advice. So, they buy their tank, set it up and, as time goes by they find that things are not quite right – plants won’t grow, fish die, the tank turns green, they buy more fish, which also die, all for “no apparent reason”.
Many times they won’t go back to the same store they went originally because they are too embarrassed or they can get cheaper fish somewhere else, or…. whatever reason. What needs to be understood is that keeping fish successfully is a combination of chemistry, water quality, fish compatibility, disease prevention and a desire to learn. Seeking advice and asking questions are the core to successful fishkeeping. Don’t be afraid to ask and read books.
Each year people leave the hobby. What has to be realised is, that if things go wrong, and they do, for the experienced as well as for novices, we have to learn from our mistakes, and not give up because of them.