As seen in: Issue 10

History of Hydroponics, Part II: The Birth of Hydroponics

Progress with the water culture method of growing plants was slow during the late 19th century. Much of the research further refined the list of elements necessary for soilless plant growth, basically through the time-consuming process of trial, error, and elimination.

Gaining Momentum

At the turn of the century, however, science was on the march. Many inventions and discoveries were popularized, including radio, the automobile, the camera, and moving pictures. Research into water culture techniques was gaining steam. Burton Edward Livingston published “A Simple Method For Experiments With Water Cultures” in The Plant World (Vol. 9, No. 1) describing a “… simpler method to study the nutrient or stimulating value of various substances.” In 1906, J.F. Breazeale of the University of Chicago, published in the Botanical Gazette (Vol. 41, No. 1), an article entitled “Effect Of Certain Solids Upon The Growth Of Seedlings In Water Cultures.” Most of these papers were not written for the layperson, however, and a review of Breazeale’s paper contained the ending caveat, “the paper shows very little consideration for the reader.”

Research, Research, And More Research

Research techniques were advancing as well. In November 1908, J.J. Skinner published the “Water Culture Method For Experimenting With Potatoes” in The Plant World (Vol. 11, No. 11). In 1913, Conrad Hoffman of the University of Wisconsin published in the Botanical Gazette (Vol. 55, No. 3), his research on using paraffin blocks for growing seedlings in liquid culture solutions, since the cork used to date added soluble compounds to the nutrient solution, potentially corrupting scientific results. And in 1914, W.E. Tottingham, also from the University of Wisconsin, published in Physiological Researches “A quantitative chemical and physiological study of nutrient solutions for plant cultures,” describing that “… it is the selective absorption of ions rather than complete salts that is indicated… ” and the importance of balance between the various elements in a nutritive solution.

History of Hydroponics

In 1915, John W. Shive published “A Three-Salt Nutrient Solution For Plants,” where he tested 84 differently proportioned nutrient solutions and showing that Tottingham’s formula was superior to Knop’s earlier four-salt solution. Research into nutrient solutions continued, and B.E. Livingston and W.E. Tottingham together published “A New Three-Salt Nutrient Solution for Plant Cultures” (July 1918).

Studies were being conducted in areas separate from nutrient solution compositions. In November 1917, a paper by Walter Stiles and Ingvar Jorgensen appeared in The New Phytologist, “Observations On The Influence Of Aeration Of The Nutrient Solution In Water Culture Experiments, With Some Remarks On The Water Culture Method.” In 1916, Orton L. Clark published in Science (Vol. 44, No. 1146), “A Method for Maintaining a Constant Volume of Nutrient Solutions,” recognizing the effects evaporation and transpiration have on solution strength and balance.

Many Great Pioneers

Several scientists at the University of California, Berkeley Agricultural Research Station were actively researching water culture and nutrient solutions. These included Dennis Robert Hoagland, who began his UC career in 1913 and served as Professor of Plant Nutrition (1927-1949). Hoagland’s initial focus was soil-based, yet his studies of kelp led to a lengthy investigation into how plants absorb nutrients.

History of Hydroponics

He established that plants’ mineral absorption is a metabolic process, not just a physical one defined by permeability, osmosis, and the like. During these studies, Hoagland grew many types of plants with a nutrient solution formula he developed that would be used worldwide as the standard for decades to come. He emphasized that his formula was not conclusive. He was often quoted as saying that there is no such thing as the “best” nutrient solution – that adjustment would always be necessary based on plant varieties, environment, etc.

Hoagland also contributed much knowledge in understanding the relationship of pH to plants grown in nutrient solutions, along with showing how important free oxygen around the root system is. He was instrumental in identifying the plant nutrient elements necessary above and beyond the ten known by 1920, particularly molybdenum.

Plant pathologist William Frederick Gericke joined the UC staff in 1912. Educated at the University of Nebraska, Iowa State College of Agriculture, John Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the University of California, Gericke’s research paper, “On the physiological balance in nutrient solutions for plant cultures,” was published in the American Journal of Botany (April 1922). The October 13, 1922 issue of Science published a Special Article by Gericke on “Water Culture Experimentation” outlining his research growing wheat using single salt solutions during different phases of growth versus well-balanced nutrient solutions throughout.

Gericke continued his research at UC over the next decade, primarily engaged in studying grains. Papers he published during the 1920’s include “Salt Requirements of Wheat at Different Growth Phases”, “Adaptation of Rice to Forty Centuries of Agriculture,” and in 1930, a paper entitled “Excessive Tax on Soil Fertility by Crop Production on Poor Land.”

Much attention and credit is given to the 200 word article by Gericke, published in the American Journal of Botany (December 1929) entitled “Aquaculture: A means of Crop-production,” wherein he describes, in the simplest of terms, the successful construction of growing reservoirs in which cartridges of plant food were added, and a variety “of floral, vegetables and field plants were grown. Results called for serious consideration of this production method for certain crops grown on an intensive scale.” This article is often credited as introducing the commercial potential of soilless production.

Hot Off The Presses

Publicity of his work in soilless growing actually came earlier than this. Not only was Gericke a gifted scientist, he was keenly attuned to the power of the press in promoting ideas. His first commercial potential experiments began simultaneously at his home in Berkeley and in the campus greenhouse, a fact that would later come back to haunt him.

On April 1st, 1928, The San Bernadino County Sun published a short article entitled “Food Pills to Grow Plants in Water, Is Professor’s Claim.” In the article, Gericke says that the future gardener could grow his vegetables and flowers in simple jars of water in which “food pills,” bound cylindrical capsules containing combinations of seven essential plant nutrients are added to the water. These food pills would soon become known as “plant pills” in future articles.

Later that month, several Associated Press articles spread through the country. Headlines included “Grows Plants In Water: Chemicals Better Than Soil, Expert Says”  and “Can Grow Plants Without Soil!” One stated, “In announcing his discovery today, Gericke said flowers produced by the soilless method are sturdier, more delicately colored, and less subject to mildew than those grown under ordinary conditions.”

A few weeks later, major stories published in Alabama’s The Anniston Star and California’s Santa Ana Register delved deeper into his soilless farming research, highlighting that Gericke was growing plants under lights. The Anniston Star headline “Plants Grow Without Sun or Soil; Chemicals Replace Earth In Test,” talks about the plant food pills, and goes into how Gericke used multiple 300-candlepower argon-filled lamps to grow wheat. Under lights, 16 hours per day generated rapid growth, and doubling the number of lights quadrupled the growth rate, the article claimed. “The experiment proved that all the sun rays essential to plant growth were present in the electric glares.”

On June 29, Gericke announced that he would demonstrate his soilless growing methods while on a European lecture tour. On December 13, reports announce his return from touring research stations throughout Europe, and that he “plans to continue his work on artificial plant nutrition until every phase of the investigation is completed and the adoption of the system by commercial growers made easy.”

By 1929, Gericke’s publicity wave seemed to fade. Save for a few recycled articles about plant pills, Gericke received very little press until October, when a four-page feature article by H.H. Dunn entitled “Plant ‘Pills’ Grow Bumper Crops” appeared in trendy, Popular Science Monthly.

The article opens with the proclamation that “through the use of a chemical “plant pill,” administered to plants grown in shallow tanks of water, cereal and vegetable crops now are made to thrive under desert conditions of heat, arid soil, and lack of humidity.”  The article reports that five thousand experiments over the past five years have resulted in this discovery.

Astonishing Results

Dunn’s article gives details of his results, saying that the size of asparagus stalks grown increased nearly 100%; that potatoes increased in size by half again, and that the yield of tomato plants could be increased by 40%. Experiments with wheat, cotton, tobacco, and cabbage showed similar results. Cotton cultivated in water could be harvested sooner. The article further states, “from these results, Dr. Gericke and his assistants, with the backing of the University of California, started experimenting with tank production of food crops, to figure costs of such production on a commercial scale.” The author gives examples of economic and production benefits achieved and offers convincing thoughts on the food farming potential for areas of the world where it wasn’t possible.

The article ends with quoting Gericke as follows, “… an area less than one-fourth that which, in my boyhood days, supplied the ‘garden truck’ for the family, will produce foodstuffs of variety, quality, quantity and value never dreamed of by the home gardener. Incidentally, the labor required will be only a small fraction of that needed for proper tilling of the soil. This, it seems to me, is the greatest value of the five years of experiments we have been conducting — that millions may be fed from water, on soils that hitherto have produced nothing but an occasional clump of cacti, or a few fig trees.”

Far From Finished

Despite the publicity generated by the Popular Science Monthly article, Gericke still had a lot of work to do to bring his ideas to fruition. He decided to focus on the practical application of his discoveries, and on June 27, 1933, obtained a U.S. patent for a “Fertilizing unit for growing plants in water.” Soon he was installing equipment in greenhouses, and arranging for agriculture research stations to try it too.

In early 1936, famous inventor Arthur Pillsbury, an early water culture enthusiast, and photographer, visited Gericke, shooting many high-quality photos of those phenomenal results, which Gericke distributed to the press for publication with articles about his work. Gericke also launched a publicity campaign to generate further interest in his discoveries, which he believed would revolutionize agriculture.

On September 24th, the Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon reported that Dr. Gericke had installed a tank farming system on the George Brehm canning plant roof in Seattle. The article quotes him calling the system “a hydroponicum.” Perhaps the first printed reference to the term adopted by Gericke.

The Big Break

Thanks to the power of the image and exaggerated claims the press eagerly spread, articles with pictures of Gericke’s work began appearing nationwide and around the world. The press coverage brought a slew of requests for further information on this exciting new farming method. Initially, Gericke discouraged these requests, stating they distracted him from his work and because he wasn’t ready to share greater details, allow system promotion, or turn it over to strangers.

During this same period, Gericke was searching for the right name for his new farming technique and, referring to his 1929 first paper on the topic, he fancied the term “aquaculture.” However, the American-Fish Cultural Association had used that term to describe fish breeding since the late 1800’s. Eventually, Dr. Gericke adopted the term “hydroponics,” but he didn’t invent it. His associate, Dr. William Setchell, a UC Professor of Botany suggested the term. “Hydroponics is from the Greek “hydro,” or water, and “ponos,” or labor, and is comparable to geoponics, by which agriculture was once designated. It meets the requirements of the philologers; it is easily pronounceable.”

The term was introduced to the public on March 2nd, 1937, when the New York Sun published a short article about Gericke’s work entitled, “Hydroponics.”

Our next installment will cover the explosive growth, application, and misrepresentation of Gericke’s ‘hydroponics’, including the work of Agricultural Research Stations, Pan American Airways, and the United States military.

more from this series

History of Hydroponics, Part I: The Beginnings of Water Culture

Hydroponics is often viewed as a more modern approach to growing, but there is a very rich history behind the technique that dates back many, many years.

History of Hydroponics, Part III: Applying the Science

Seeing is believing, and in the 1930’s and 40’s, the science of hydroponics began being applied on a very large scale; proof that the growing method was valid.

History of Hydroponics, Part IV: From Businesses to People’s Homes

With hydroponics being used by farmers, the hospitality business, and in people’s homes, it only seemed natural it also be used for victory gardens during WWII.

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The late Jeff Edwards, author of The History of Hydroponics series, was a seasoned veteran of the hobby hydroponic industry, a hydroponic history buff, and the creator of HydroponicGardening.com. The historian helped shape the industry of indoor gardening as we know it, and although he is no longer with us, his drive to educate and motivate people will live on through his fascinating work.