Hydroponics, the process of growing plants without soil using a nutrient solution, has its roots in ancient times. Evidence suggests that people in ancient Egypt and China grew plants in water baths, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon involved plants fed by a constant supply of running water. Scientific interest in new ways to grow plants eventually led to hydroponics as we know it today. With the amount of land suitable for farm crops shrinking and the world population increasing, hydroponics promises to continue growing in popularity in the future.
The earliest plant scientists considered water to be the only necessity for plant growth and thought that soil only acted as a support to keep the plant upright. This belief led to scientists conducting experiments in which they grew plants in nothing but water. Sir Francis Bacon detailed such an experiment in the 1620s. In 1699, John Woodward experimented on plants to find out how they obtained nutrients, growing them in water and adding different types of garden soil to show that substances present in soil are responsible for plant growth.
Further progress in plant research was slowed until the field of chemistry caught up. The next major advance was around 1850 when French scientist Jean Boussingault experimented with soilless growing media such as sand and charcoal. His research proved that the hydrogen in water and the carbon dioxide in the air was essential to plant growth.
Nutriculture to Hydroponics
In the early 1860s, two German scientists were the first to grow plants in water and nutrient solutions. Julius von Sachs, a professor of botany at the University of Wurzburg, accomplished the feat in 1860 and has been called the father of water culture. W. Knop, an agricultural chemist, followed in 1861, conducting extensive research into plant metabolism and discovering the role of chlorophyll. These two scientists called their research "nutriculture."
In 1936, a professor from the University of California Davis named W.F. Gericke coined the term "hydroponics." He was the first to try adapting the laboratory techniques of nutriculture to commercial crop production.
Feeding World War II Troops
Widespread interest in hydroponics got a boost during World War II. Both the U.S. Army and the British Royal Air Force built hydroponic units for troops stationed on rocky islands and other areas where food could not otherwise be produced. Public interest in hydroponics also grew at this time as the government urged them to become self-reliant and grow more of their food themselves. This interest in hydroponics spread worldwide, particularly in countries that had very little land suitable for farming.
The invention of plastics dramatically improved hydroponic technology. Before plastics came on the scene, concrete was used to hold the plants and nutrient solutions in large hydroponic beds. Plastics also provided much-improved plumbing, and their lower cost provided more people with the opportunity to begin hydroponic gardens.