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History of Aquarium & Ornamental Fish by Dr. Hameed Al-Alawi

Aquarium and ornamental fish keeping is not just tanks with fishes. It's history too. In this article you will learn about the history of aquariums fishes, and the first aquarists.

Aquarium History

The origins of aquarium keeping have been around for about as long as keeping food fishes, although the methodology and understanding of aquarium filtration has varied considerably. The origins of aquaculture most likely originated when fish were trapped in some type of enclosure after monsoon floods receded. The earliest known aquarists were the Sumerians, who kept fishes in artificial ponds at least 4,500 years ago; records of fish keeping also date from ancient Egypt and Assyria. The Chinese, who raised carp for food as early as 2000 BC, were probably the first to breed fish with any degree of success. Their selective breeding of ornamental goldfish was later introduced to Japan, where the breeding of ornamental carp was perfected. It has been noted that the ancient Babylonians kept ponds of ornamental fish and this was circa 500 BC. The ancient Romans, who kept fish for food and entertainment, were the first known marine aquarists; they constructed ponds that were supplied with fresh seawater from the ocean.

Ornamental Fish keeping

The most important contributor to the art of fish keeping was the Chinese. Goldfish were the first ornamental fish to be kept. These fish date back to 960 AD during the Sung Dynasty in China. Ponds stocked with ornamental fish gained popularity among the rich from 968-975 and eating the fish was strictly prohibited.

In 1136 Emperor Hiau-Tsung started to breed and keep these fish in a more controlled environment. Several new breeds of ornamental; fish evolved which helped make him popular and known throughout China.

By 1510, goldfish were no longer a luxury for the rich, but common among all people. Many houses and dwellings had ponds with goldfish and breeding them flourished. It was very common to keep breeding ideas secret. Even today in many cultures its good luck to keep these fish in the house or in ponds around the house.

In 1616 the goldfish reached Japan .The Japanese mastered the breeding of fish over time. They are now the largest exporters of goldfish worldwide! The Japanese and Chinese have some of the most beautiful ponds in the world. These ponds are even more exotic when their combined with water plants!

In 1691 goldfish appeared in Portugal and the rest of Europe. From there they arrived in England in 1780. By 1850 goldfish arrived in the New World and they were the big attraction in New York in 1865. Although goldfish were successfully kept in glass vessels in England, aquarium keeping did not become well established until the relationship between oxygen, animals, and plants became known a century later. During the mid 1800’s the "Balanced Aquarium" approach was considered the only method for keeping aquarium fish. The Balanced Aquarium consisted of "a tank in which the air surface of the water, aided by plants would supply sufficient oxygen" and "most of the waste from the fish was consumed by the plants and scavengers”.

Johann Matthaeus Bechsttein (1757-1822) in 1794 preserves a lot of fish and amphibians to study in Germany. In 1797, his first fish book published. The book described on how to keep the fish such as replacement of water, the density of fish in a container, color and shape of fish, and so forth. But not to discuss about the aquarium. However, until now, after more than 200 years have passed, "ornamental fish books" still describe the same thing.

In 1819, William Thomas Brande of England published his fish book with the inscription that fish breathe by inhaling oxygen dissolved in water. He further that the oxygen in the water produced by the water plants, and fish will live a healthier when kept in tank containers that have a water plants.

In 1833, Dr. Danberry in a seminar in Cambridge, England, proves that water plants release oxygen by taking the CO2 with the help of light. Danberry's papers have been increasingly enriched repertoire of today's fish books.

In 1853, Philip Henry Gosse made the first public aquarium combined with a water fountain placed at Regents Park Zoological Gardens – England, so that can be enjoyed by the community. This was done because he saw the aquarium price is still expensive and be owned by rich people only. This is an aquarium in the truest sense and kept indoors. Previously aquarium in the past was kept in the yard.

Philip Henry Gosse was the first to use the word "aquarium". Since then the aquarium has become a popular in many European countries, like France (1859), Germany (1864) to reach the United States (1900). Many fish types cannot live long in the aquarium, but the Macropodus operculatus, also called Paradise fish or Corydoras paleatus introduced in Paris, can survive for long time.

Philip Henry Gosse was also a writer of "A Handbook to the Marine Aquarium”. One of popular fish books and completes enough in that time, containing practical instruction for constructing, stocking and maintaining a tank and for collecting plants and animals. The book was published in London, in 1855.

Aquarium History notes that Red Goldfish is the first freshwater ornamental fish which maintaining in the world and popular remain until today. Now, more than 125 varieties of goldfish vary of form and colors as crossbreeding result have circulating around the world.

“In summer one must ensure that the lovely colors and nimble movements catch the eye. The container of choice for this is a large glass ball with an opening large enough to ensure that the fishes can obtain sufficient air, but small enough that they cannot jump out and die if nobody is at hand”. This was written (in German) about the goldfish bowl in 1856 in issue 19 of the magazine “Die Gartenlaube” after, to keep and maintaining ornamental fish become trend, in 1850 Otto Gitter opening his ornamental fish shop at Leizpig, German and Aquarium Historyalsonotes that it was the first ornamental fish store in the world.

In 1842, Dr. Johnston introduced his first glass aquarium but the glass is only in the front side. This aquarium capacity of 20 liters and it’s filled with sea water. Discovery still continues, in 1850 freshwater aquarium with a larger size (50 liters) was introduced. The aquarium contains Goldfish, a water plant species Vallisneria gigantean and some snails.

At that time, marine aquarium is more popular than freshwater aquarium. Difficulty of finding freshwater ornamental fishes (except goldfish) - while the marine ornamental fish was having more attractive colour and more vary - making marine fish tank more popular.

By 1850 the keeping of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles had become useful in the study of nature. It was in the works of Philip Gosse, a British naturalist, which the term aquarium first appeared. His work aroused increased public interest in aquatic life. The first display aquarium was opened to the public in 1853 at Regent's Park in London. It was followed by aquariums in Berlin, Naples, and Paris. P.T. Barnum, the circus entrepreneur, recognized the commercial possibilities of living aquatic animals and, in 1856, opened the first display aquarium at the American Museum in New York City as a private enterprise.

During the early 1900’s Aeration, Particulate and Charcoal filtration was touted as the state-of-the-art but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the under-gravel filters was introduced. Ironically even though it was promoted as a biological filter its true role in filtration was still misunderstood, and yet the under-gravel filter has been the greatest advancement to the aquarium industry.

By 1928 there were 45 public or commercial aquariums throughout the world, but growth then slowed and few new large aquariums appeared until after World War II. Many of the world's principal cities now have public aquariums as well as commercial ones.
In 1856 a groundbreaking essay about "Sea in a Glass” by Emil Robmaber was published in Germany which is recognized as the beginning of the aquatic hobby as we know it today.

Up until the 1950's, all fish were fed live foods. Dr. Baensch revolutionised the hobby by inventing flake foods. From there on, the hobby flourished. Fueled by faster and more advanced transportation, more and more breeders and hobbyists helped make the aquarium hobby more popular. The inventions since the 1950s, such as water chemistry, filtration, aeration, and lighting have basically made it possible for anyone to enjoy fish keeping.

There was not a wide choice and selection of aquariums in the 50's and 60's. Most of them had thick metal frames and the largest size was 100 gallon, unless you had a tank custom built. Today, the tanks are frameless and are available in glass and acrylic. They come in all shapes and sizes, such as square, rectangular, hexagon, bow front, and cylinder. Most new tanks have fluorescent lighting instead of incandescent, which is better for plant growth, and emphasize the beautiful colours of the fish.

It wasn’t until 1974 that successful commercial attempts to spawn and rear marine ornamental fish began to occur and by 1975 Martin Moe and Chris Turk of Aqualife Research and Frank Hoff and Tom Frakes of Instant Ocean Hatcheries were raising three species of clownfish, Oscellaris (Amphiprion ocellaris), the Tomato (Amphiprion frenatus) and the Clarki Clownfish (Amphiprion clarkii).

In 1984 the second greatest advancement occurred in the aquarium industry, the introduction to the US of the European Wet - Dry Filter. Now hobbyists could keep fish as well as corals and invertebrates successfully.

It has taken thousands of years, but at least now we can keep basically any type of fish and enjoy a nature in our own living room! We can enjoy a little piece of the ocean, or even parts of the great rift Lakes of Africa. Nothing is more relaxing than to sit in front of the aquarium and watch the antics of the fish. It is an art of its own and you can create a living art!