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The History of Hydroponics

The History of Hydroponics

Hydroponics (from the Greek words “hydro” - water - and “ponos” - labour) is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as;

 

“the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil.”

 


References to rudimentary hydroponic systems are littered throughout ancient history, with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon being a particularly famous example, whereby water from the Euphrates river was (purportedly) diverted into channels to provide a constant source of hydration and nutrition to the gardens. There's also evidence that the Aztecs maintained floating gardens in lakes and ponds, and rice paddies across Asia (still common today) utilise a very basic form of hydroponic nutrition.

 

The Romans famously pioneered the use of aqueducts to channel water to crops, which has been credited as being an important factor in allowing the relatively fast expansion of the Roman empire into the furthest corners of the globe.

 

In the 16th century, Belgian chemist Jan van Helmont began to research the effects of nutrition on plant growth, and his famous 'Willow Tree' experiment is considered by many to be the first truly scientific research into plant nutrition.

 

In 1699, English naturalist & botanist John Woodward expanded on van Helmont's initial research by conducting a series of experiments that aimed to test and quantify the effect of different types of water on plant growth.

By feeding spearmint plants with various types of distilled and natural water, he was able to conclude that the nutrients in un-purified water produced greater growth and yields vs. distilled water. This was an important foundation for the study of hydroponics.

 

Though Woodward's work was pioneering, the practical applications of hydroponics in his time were limited.

For a few hundred years, there wasn't much public or commercial interest in researching hydroponic“ growth (the result of advances in traditional agricultural machinery, such as horse-driven plows) and as a result the practice stagnated and was consigned to the backbenches for a while.

 

Modern Hydroponics

Dr William Frederick Gericke, University of California. Father of modern hydroponics.

In the late 1920s, Dr William Gericke (pictured) of the University of California reignited interest in hydroponics (he actually coined the term) by conducting a series of experiments to research the potential commercial applications of outdoor irrigation and hydroponic systems.

He is considered the father of modern hydroponics and his work laid the foundations for many of the advances made in the 20th century.

 

At the height of the Second World War, the US military recognised a number of potential applications for Dr. Gericke's hydroponic systems, and carried out a series of trials at military bases across the Pacific. The most famous trial was conducted on Wake Island, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, and frequent refuelling stop for US military warships and planes. Due to its naturally rocky terrain, the island was incapable of producing crops and so all food had to be imported from elsewhere. This became a real issue in WW2 as personnel stationed on the island were at risk of food shortages in the event of a supply ship being sunk or otherwise immobilised by the Axis powers.

 

As a solution, the US Air Force created 120 sq ft hydroponic growing beds that were said to yield around 40kg of fresh produce on a weekly basis, and the success of this particular trial fuelled further interest in the field.

 

Jumping forward to the late 20th century, NASA's well publicised testing of hydroponic growing systems in zero-gravity sparked a resurgence of interest across the globe, and led to the development of the innovative, modern, pump-driven systems that are commonplace today. NASA's research proved that hydroponic systems could be used to grow plants in the most challenging of conditions, and working in tandem with cyclical lighting systems, environmental controllers and nutrition/boosters, hydroponic systems could effectively emulate different climates to allow for the cultivation of plants that were previously limited to specific areas of the world.

 

Recent advancements

Rapid technological advancements in the late 20th/early 21st century have contributed to an explosion in popularity of hydroponic growing systems. Many previously manual procedures (such as switching lighting cycles) are now able to be automated thanks to the development of smart computer processors, and we're also able to monitor essential data such as heat,  light and CO2 levels in real time. This sort of advancement allows growers to be proactive in adjusting levels to ensure the health of their plant and gain the greatest yields. Gone are the days of reactive growing and needing to conduct 'detective' work to figure out what went wrong in the event of plant death or reduced yields.

 

The growth of the hydroponics industry as a whole (massively boosted by the legalisation of recreational Cannabis in the United States) has contributed to millions of dollars spent worldwide each year on R&D, vastly increasing the rate of technical innovation. Some systems now allow you to manually adjust lighting levels, nutrition mixes and heating systems remotely via smartphone apps, which would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago.

 

We're so excited to see how the hydroponics industry evolves in the future, and we'll be sure to post regular updates of the latest advancements.

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