Soilless culture has been known and used by mankind since ancient times. The chinampas of Aztec culture, the Chinese floating gardens and mentions to “crop water” in Egyptian hieroglyphs are all good examples.

History of hydroponics.

Detail of the manufacture of chinampas in a mural of the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico city.

However, not every soilless culture is hydroponic. The knowledge that gave place to real hydroponic technologies appeared much later. It was not until 1600 that chemist Jan van Helmont discovered that plants were taking their nourishing elements from the water. Francis Bacon in 1627 and John Woodward in 1699 contributed with their work to the development of cultures of soil plants in a liquid medium. This technology became very popular among researchers. In 1860 Sachs and Knop developed the first nutrient solution where plants could be cultured, a process they called “nutriculture”. From this moment we can properly speak of hydroponics, though the term was not coined until almost 70 years later.

Professor Gericke was the first one to use the word hydroponics, formed from the greek words “hydro” (water) and “ponos” (labour). He was also the one who popularized and transferred the technology from the laboratory to a commercial environment. He made the headlines growing twenty-five feet high tomato vines, using mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil.

History of hydroponics.

Professor Gericke appears in a 1930 film about hydroponics

The hydroponic cultures had a vital strategic importance in the Second World War. They were used to provide food to the American troops stationed on non-arable remote islands in the Pacific or during the Grow-More-Food Campaign (1939-1945). In those years, researchers like Hoagland and Arnon developed several formulas for mineral nutrient solutions, known as the Hoagland solution. Modified Hoagland solutions are still in use.

What would all these authors think if they could see the plants grown on a experimental station in Antarctica or in space stations orbiting the Earth? Probably none had imagined it. Nevertheless thanks to the curiosity and the work of all these people, today we can enjoy a small urban garden in our house and dream of future explorations and colonizing the universe that surrounds us.

History of hydroponics.

Artist rendering of a growing module in Mars

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