A History of Hydroponics

What is the history of Hydroponics?

Ancient Hydroponics

The word Hydroponics derives from the Greek ‘Hydro’ (water) and ‘Ponics’ (to work). A literal translation of the term means ‘Water-working’ which implies the action of using water to facilitate nearly all functions.

In the modern day, we use Hydroponics as a term to describe the process of growing plants without a physical medium. Hydroponics uses pumps to transmit water and nutrients. This is the focus and theory behind all pure Hydroponics systems, which are defined by this terminology.

The practice dates back possibly as far as 600 BC to the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built by King Nebuchadnezzar II. They are believed to have used chain pumps to cycle buckets of water from the Euphrates River. This water would be sent up to the top of the monument, where the water would be released into channels which would irrigate the gardens.


Hydroponics in the Middle Ages

Picture of Francis Bacon - A history of Hydroponics - Sylva Sylvarum.

Around the 12th Century AD, South and Middle-American civilizations such as the Aztecs and the Incas began developing Chinampas. Chinampa were bodies of water that would support a small floating landmass with crops. Chinampas were effective and constructed in rings, around many capitals, including Tenochtitlan.

Francis Bacon is attributed as the earliest published Hydroponics author. Mainly in his Sylva Sylvarum, or ‘A Natural History’, which was published following his death in 1627. The first experiments began shortly after the publishing of this work. In 1699, John Woodward conducted and published his experiments regarding spearmint. These experiments showed that the plant grew better in less-pure water sources compared to others grown in distilled water.

In 1842, Wilhelm Knop and Julius von Sachs carried out extensive experiments to compile a list of nine elements. The two believed that the elements were critical for healthy plant growth. By 1875, people were using the first modern techniques of soilless cultivation. The ‘Solution Culture’ techniques grew plants in a mineral solution. These techniques have consistently produced rapidly growing healthier crops that bear greater yields than others grown in soil, or distilled water.


Modern Hydroponics

However, it wasn’t until 1929 that William Frederick Gericke of the University of California proved how viable a means of crop production the ‘Solution Culture’ could be. Managing to grow twenty-five-feet tall Tomato crops in his garden in mineral solutions rather than soil, he generated a sensation that launched the first commercial platforms for Hydroponics, which he coined as a term in 1937. During the 1960s, Allen Cooper developed Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). NFT revolutionized Hydroponics, causing a string of new techniques to rapidly surface. From this point on, hobbyist Hydroponics began widespread growth.

Since the turn of the millennium, NASA has conducted a large amount of research into Hydroponic techniques. The hope is to use it to grow crops for their Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CESS).