In 1850, a French chemist named Jean-Baptiste Boussingault established that water was essential to plant growth because of its contribution of hydrogen. Decades earlier, in 1600, a Belgian chemist named Jan van Helmont had discovered that plants obtained certain essential substances from water. In 1492, Leonardo da Vinci had already deduced that plants needed minerals in order to grow. Preceding them all, ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians, the Aztecs and the Egyptians had already discovered the principles of hydroponics, or how to grow plants in water without soil.
Crops Without Soil
The ancient art of hydroponics was a lost art for centuries thereafter. It was not until 1929 that Dr. William F. Gericke, a professor at the University of California at Davis, achieved major success with his experiments to create viable commercial crop production without soil. Products included vegetables, fruit, cereal crops, ornamentals and flowers. Gericke called his process “Hydroponics,” which derives from Greek and means “waterworking.” Gericke is the author of “The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening,” published in 1940, with several reprints since.
The ability to cultivate fruits and vegetables without soil was especially advantageous to the U.S. Army and the Royal Air Force of Britain when World War II broke out in 1939. American and British military bases adopted hydroponic units to grow food for troops stationed on rocky islands where conditions did not accommodate soil-based food production.
By the 1950s, hydroponics was in use in Europe and the United States, in areas where traditional farming was not possible. Desalination units were put in place to treat seawater where no fresh water supplies were available. During the early 1970s, soil was still the principal means of growing crops and other plants. It is estimated that by 1978, 60 percent of all greenhouse crops were grown by hydroponic methods.
The University of Arizona has carried out hydroponic research and development programs in tomato production since the mid-1960s. Research has pinpointed the importance of light in determining optimum locations to establish hydroponic production facilities. Studies have established that the southwest desert region of the United States provides the world’s highest winter light conditions, ideally suited to hydroponics.
The plastics industry and automated systems have played leading roles in the development of hydroponic greenhouse technology. Plastics have replaced concrete to form the lining of beds for holding plants and water. Polyethylene sheet (PE), which was first created in the United Kingdom in 1938, and polyvinylchloride (PVC) are alternatives to glass in the manufacture of greenhouses. The first use of PE instead of glass as a greenhouse cover is credited to Professor Emery Myers Emmert of the University of Kentucky in 1948.
Scientists continue to explore new possibilities for growing crops and other plants through hydroponics. For example, it is envisaged that glasshouses in desert areas and fitted with antennas to receive energy radiation from space could enable hydroponic food production.