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History Shaping the Future

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Guest weekprik

History Shaping the Future


By Trevor Shields




The roots of hydroponics are as deep and strong as those of the plants the science nurtures itself. “Hydroponics” as a term was first coined by Dr. W. E. Gerricke in the 1920s and 30s to define his work with plants. The word is an amalgam of the two Latin words “Hydro” and “Ponos” which literally translates as “water working.” While the latter half of the 20th century saw the largest leaps in technology and instrumentation of the science, the earliest recorded instance of hydroponics are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.


This Wonder of the Ancient World is regarded as one of the first working hydroponic gardens, but the science has been around in one form or another since the birth of the Egyptian Pyramids. Some researchers believe that the Hanging Gardens were a very elaborate hydroponic system, continually pumping through water and nutrient to support its thriving plant life. This is only supposition, however, and the debate continues.


In some of its earliest incarnations, hydroponics followed the general rule of thumb for most scientific breakthroughs: Necessity being the mother of invention. The Aztec tribes of Central America were forced to feed their people living on the agriculturally-void marshy shores of Lake Tenochtitlan. As a burgeoning nation, they were forced to pull a living out of this inhospitable land by hostile neighbours. The option to move to a friendlier clime wasn’t available to them. Ingenuity and necessity allowed them to invent a series of floating gardens. They would fashion small rafts out of reeds and brush (called Chinampas), and cover these makeshift-floating planters with soil dredged up from the shallow lake bottom. They would then plant vegetables, flowers and even trees on these small rafts. As their endeavours grew, so did their gardens. They would lash these floating planters together to create huge floating islands of produce and flowers, at times reaching sizes of over 200 feet long. The ingenuity and hardiness of the Aztec people eventually allowed them to create a great and powerful nation which pushed back their hostile neighbours and allowed them to rule in dominance. They excelled in warfare and the sciences, developing an intricate calendar, medicinal practices and mathematical formulas that were far advanced for their time. With all of their expansion and conquest, they never gave up their home on the marshy shores of Lake Tenochtitlan, and their fabulous floating gardens.


Hieroglyphs in Egypt give proof of gardens existing along the banks of the Nile with plants growing without soil. Theophrastus (472-287 BC), a Greek philosopher and Aristotle’s successor as head of the Periapetetics was a brilliant man. While his influences and genius was varied, his most interesting discoveries were those he made with plant life. He undertook many studies into the growth process of plants and environmental effects on them.


Rice is a classic example of a hydroponically grown crop, as are cranberries. Their harvest dates back centuries. But all of these examples, while exhibiting the basic principles of a hydroponic garden, do not prove the use of a refined nutrient supply. Documented research into the constituents of plant make-up and nutrient needs is not evident until the 1600s.


Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644) was a brilliant Belgian Chemist, Physiologist and Physician. Although he tended to dabble in mysticism, he was an exacting observer and experimenter. He was the first person to recognize gases other than air. He is attributed with coining the term “gas” and discovered that the “wild spirits” (carbon dioxide) produced by burning charcoal as well as by fermenting grape juice were the same. Because he applied these observations of chemical principles to digestion and nutrition, he is known as the “Father of Biochemistry.” In one of his experiments, He planted a five-pound willow shoot in a tube containing 200 pounds of dried soil. The tube was covered to keep out dust. After five years of regular watering with rainwater he discovered that the willow shoot increased in weight by 160 pounds, while the soil lost less than two ounces. His conclusion that plants obtain substances for growth from water was correct. However, he failed to realize that they also require carbon dioxide and oxygen from the air. Helmont’s collected works, Ortus Medicinae, were published in 1648.


Through the centuries that followed, many brilliant people bent their genius to the task of discovering and defining plant physiology. John Woodward (1665-1728), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829), Nicolas-Theodore de Saussure (1767-1845) and Jean Baptiste Joseph Dieudonne Boussingault (1802-1887) were but a few scientists who advanced research into the building blocks of the modern hydroponic garden.


One groundbreaking advance was made in 1856 by an industrious scientist named Salm-Horsmar. He was the first to develop techniques for growing plants in sand and other inert media. Using the knowledge gleaned by his predecessors, he saturated the medium with the nutrients that had been discovered to sustain plant life.


A few years later, in 1860 and 1861, the first true hydroponic gardens were formed. The media was removed and plants were grown supported by water and nutrient alone. Two German scientists accomplished this feat: Julius von Sachs (1832-1897), the Professor of Botany at the University of Wurzburg in 1860, and W. Knop, an agricultural chemist, in 1861. Both of the solutions these scientists developed to sustain their plants were composed of various salts. Knop’s formula, as published in 1865, is as follows: 0.2, KNO3, 0.8 Ca(NO3)2; 0.2, KH2PO4; MgSO4*7H2O; 0.1, FePO4 (all concentrations in units of grams/liter). This formula, and many variations of it, is still in use today. Sachs was most renowned for discovering the importance of transpiration in plants and the role of chlorophyll. His in-depth research into plant metabolism was a major contribution to the advancement of hydroponics.


Thus “Nutriculture” was born. These early experiments by these two German scientists solidified the fact that normal, even accelerated plant growth can be obtained by immersing the roots of a plant in a nutrient rich solution. The salts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) are now defined as the macroelements or macronutrients (elements required in relatively large amounts).


With further refinements in laboratory techniques and chemistry, scientists discovered seven elements required by plants in relatively small quantities - the microelements or trace elements. These include iron (Fe), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), boron (:o, zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), and molybdenum (Mo).


Armed with this knowledge, researchers expanded on the basic formulas provided by Sachs and Knop. Over the course of the next century, many of the formulas, which are the basis of plant nutrient today, were formed. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that hydroponics was truly “born.”


The father of modern hydroponics, Dr. William F. Gericke of the University of California coined the term “hydroponics” and explored its value to large-scale crop production. Although Gericke focused all of his research on water culture, his findings are considered the basis for all hydroponic growing. Water culture would be the truest form of hydroponics, but any plant grown in an inert medium is considered hydroponic. Any form of media such as perlite, rockwool, sand, pea gravel or peat is used primarily to support the root system and lend the plant stability. The plant derives no nutrient from the medium itself; that nutrient is supplied through other means. The terms “soil-less media” and “soil-less gardening” were coined to describe such systems.


Dr. Gericke grew vegetables hydroponically, including root crops, such as beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, and cereal crops, fruits, ornamentals and flowers. Using water culture in large tanks in his laboratory at the University of California, he succeeded in growing tomatoes to heights of 25 feet. Pictures of the good doctor tending to his crops having to stand on a stepladder created a buzz. Although his original systems were too labour intensive to be adapted commercially, hydroponics burst out of the laboratory. Taking a good idea and making it better, America at large began further explorations into Gericke’s work. His design was intricate and expensive to build and maintain; many growers who attempted to duplicate his results faced frustration. Unavoidably, a period arose where the press blew Gericke’s work out of proportion, making unbelievable claims to bring word of this “Discovery of the Century” to the public. Skepticism eventually won out, and hydroponics took on an almost mystical air. The general populace believed they had been fleeced, and the roar subsided to a whisper. By 1938, hydroponics had all but retreated back to the laboratory where it was born.


The world went to war, and US troops were stationed in the Pacific Islands in climates they could not grow food to support them. Supply lines were almost impossible to sustain and Napoleon’s observation that “an army marches on its stomach” was never so apparent. Relief came in the form of a “hydroponic farm” built on the infertile Wake Island by Pan American Airways to sustain the nutritional needs of the troops. Other sites were set up making use of hydroponics once the success was apparent on Wake Island. The British Ministry of Agriculture became interested in hydroponics as a possible addition to their Grow-More-Food campaign during World War II. Legitimized as a successful science, hydroponics entered the world stage.


The science saw another surge of interest in the 50s; a decade devoted to decadence. The world had seen the end of the second Great War years earlier, and it was looking to the future. Happy days were here again. Inventors and scientists wracked their brains to deliver to the populace the newest “appliance of the future.” Suburbia became obsessed with bringing science fiction into science fact, tirelessly attempting to outdo their neighbour with the latest, greatest gadget. The hobby hydroponics industry was born.


While the methods of hydroponics are constantly being altered, refined and expanded, the rudimentary principle remains the same. The nutrient delivery system depends on moving water as its conduit. All of the essential minerals and trace elements are made available to the plant in an easily digestible form. Centuries after the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed, hydroponics is being taken much more seriously.


As hydroponics evolves, so does our planet. Deforestation, climactic changes and over-population are contributing to a decline in arable land mass. Japan, Mexico, India and the state of Hawaii are four areas with a deficit of landmass available for crop production. Whether it is due to bursting population, the tourist industry or erosion, such places cannot support enough traditional crops to feed its people. Due to an accelerated growth rate and superior use of space, hydroponics is quickly becoming the gardening method of choice in these areas. Government facilities and private business alike are taking advantage of hydroponics, and reaping both success and financial gain.


Necessity has been the motivation behind every advance in the science of hydroponics. People need to eat and as we walk deeper into the twenty first century, hydroponics becomes more and more obvious as the choice to support that need.


Large commercial greenhouses are using and adapting hydroponic practices to achieve accelerated results in their operations. Aquaculture and Nutriculture are holding hands in the agricultural world. Once the stock of Ecospheres alone, farm fish breeders and hydroponic vegetable growers are building complimentary facilities to support and strengthen both of their endeavours. NASA is constantly refining hydroponic sciences as a food source provider in planned and theoretical extra-planetary exploration and colonization. American Nuclear Submarines host fully functional hydroponic gardens to feed their complement of crews. Many small-scale specialty growers are keeping the restaurant industry stocked with fresh herbs and salad greens, available year-round. The applications for this science are almost too numerous to list.


Whether you are feeding someone’s starving stomach with freshly grown produce, or someone’s starving eyes with a colourful flower amidst industry and concrete, is there any purpose more noble? Mankind will continue to get hungry, population will continue to expand and need will continue to grow. Who knows where necessity will take hydroponics in the future, whether it be on this planet or beyond.

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weekprik that made for some interesting reading but took forever :o...


its amazing how much hydroponics has been used in the past and a 25ft tomato plant !!!! FUCK thats huge ;) do u know how big the tomatos where ???


aeroponics made a orange tree produce fruit the size of grapefruit :o wouldnt mind if i could make a bud do that :D but i would love to see a pic of that big ass tomato tree :o

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