As seen in: Issue 11

History of Hydroponics, Part III: Applying the Science


Some of the popular articles on the water-culture method of crop production are grossly inaccurate in fact and misleading in implication. Widely circulated rumors, claims, and predictions about the water-culture production of crops often have little more to commend them than the author’s unrestrained imagination. Erroneous and even fantastic ideas have been conceived that betray a lack of knowledge of elementary principles of plant physiology. For example, there have been statements that in the future most of the food needed by the occupants of a great apartment building may be grown on the roof, and that in large cities “skyscraper” farms may supply huge quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables. One Sunday-supplement article contained an illustration showing a housewife opening a small closet off the kitchen and picking tomatoes from vines growing in water culture with the aid of electric lights. There has even arisen a rumor that the restaurants of a large chain in New York City are growing their vegetables in basements.

Sound familiar? The previous paragraph is from the introduction to Circular 347, entitled The Water-Culture Method For Growing Plants Without Soil, written by Dennis Robert Hoagland, a Professor of Plant Nutrition and Chemist, and Daniel I. Arnon, Junior Plant Physiologist, at the University of California at Berkeley, College of Agriculture. Circular 347 was published in December of 1938

The paper was published by the University after being overwhelmed with thousands of requests for more information about work by their associate, Dr. William F. Gericke, who for the past decade, had conducted research about the commercial application of water-culture, a developing science he named “hydroponics” in 1937.

Capturing the imagination of the public and the press, Gericke’s work was much publicized… and ridiculed, even before he adopted the term hydroponics. While his research was primarily geared towards the commercial applications, his earlier emphasis on nutrient salts added to water as “plant pills,” gave the misimpression to many in the press, and by extension, the public. Hydroponics could be carried on by most anyone as a hobby! So, by the end of 1938, over 40 different companies on the west coast alone were offering hydroponic chemicals and supplies to the public.

Not So Fast…

Yet, Gericke wasn’t ready to share his work publicly. He wanted to make sure all aspects of hydroponic cultivation were researched and tested before making any of the specifics available to the public. His focus was on commercial applications, and he emphasized with his superiors that his work was incomplete. Gericke wanted more time to fully research and understand every aspect of this developing science before allowing others to emulate it.

history of hydroponics

As research was being conducted under the auspices of the University, administrators felt compelled to release the results for the benefit of the more than 30,000 requests from around the world for more information. Before doing so, they assigned Hoagland and Arnon to review the work conducted so far and create a report that checked Dr. Gericke’s research, while including the nutrient salt formulas and design schematics for the equipment developed to date. To Gericke and others, however, Circular 347 seemed written more to undermine the developing technology than promote it by ignoring many of the ancillary benefits of hydroponics, while emphasizing that the authors were able to grow equivalent crops side by side in soil and soilless media, albeit in a greenhouse environment.

Much of Dr. Gericke’s research at that time was being simultaneously conducted at his home, and shortly after the publication of Circular 347, Dr. Gericke terminated his relationship with the University, continuing his research independently in his greenhouse. Prior to his departure, however, several important experimental projects had been initiated as a result of his work.

Wake Island and Pan American World Airways

In 1934, Pan American World Airways decided upon Wake Island as one of several stops en route to the Far East for their fast growing seaplane fleet; stops that also included Honolulu, Midway Island, and Guam. The air service was launched in 1935, and by the end of 1936, small hotels had been built on the islands to accommodate air clipper passengers and crew while planes were serviced after flight from one island to the next. Each of the hotels included a restaurant to feed the travelers.

Half of the islands used for these intermediate stops were little more than rocky atolls, lacking space to cultivate any crops in traditional ways. The regularly scheduled supply ship, Tradewind, only visited every 6 months, delivering very little food. The clipper ship airliners were reserved primarily for passengers, and due to the long distances traveled, only essential freight was allowed to fly along to conserve fuel. The one exception was dairy products, due to their perishable nature, as none could be produced on the islands.

In December 1937, newspapers announced that 23-year-old Lamory T. Laumeister, a senior at the University of California’s Department of Agriculture, who worked closely with Gericke, traveled to Wake Island to set up a farming experiment using soilless techniques. Hired by Pan-American, the goal was to produce fresh vegetables for the islands’ 35 permanent inhabitants. This included the Pan-American Hotel manager, Charles Jenkins, his wife, and the air passengers arriving once each week. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins also served as the chefs for the hotel restaurant.

history of hydroponics

Lamory quickly set up the tanks and equipment sent to the island on the supply ship, and by the middle of February 1938, he had produced his first radish crop. Other crops were challenging, with many growing lush vegetation in the tropical sun, but bearing little fruit. Minor changes to the nutrient solution, and erecting shade cloth solved the problems. A month later, he provided the restaurant with lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots. Once fully operational, weekly yields were reported at 30 pounds of tomatoes, 20 pounds of string beans, 40 pounds of sweet corn, and 20 heads of lettuce.

While he was initially scheduled to spend six months on the island, he successfully lobbied to stay an extra year, during which he continued to tweak his 230 square feet of redwood growing tanks. In June 1939, Torrey Lyons, a University of California graduate with experience in culture solutions, replaced Lamory as head hydroponicist. Taking over the garden, he quickly learned that the number one issue Lamory had was not being able to grow enough to satisfy the regular demands of his small but growing number of consumers, even when he intercropped his growing beds.

Pleased with the results, Pan-American decided to increase the growing capacity sufficiently to keep the airbase fully supplied. To supplement production of the original facility, they approved the construction a new “hydroponicum” – the term Gericke adopted to fight the press’ tendency to label them “bathtub gardens.” The new growing beds, four times larger,  were constructed of concrete, offering 1,000 additional square feet of growing space. Torrey successfully grew many crops, experimenting with many different vegetables.

On December 8th, 1941, the Japanese attacked the island along with Pearl Harbor, the date not matching due to the international date line. Afterward, all U.S. personnel were immediately evacuated. On December 9th, the Japanese attacked again, destroying the Pan American Hotel and the island hospital. The hydroponicum survived the attack and was reportedly used by the Japanese during their occupation of the island.

The Agricultural Experiment Stations

Dr. Gericke’s early publicity piqued the interest of agricultural scientists worldwide. Many began experimentation of their own – independent of Dr. Gericke’s work. By 1939, H.M. Biekart and C.H. Connors of the New Jersey Experiment Station had been growing roses and carnations on a commercial-scale using a nutrient culture method with pure sand as the growing media for almost a decade. Other contributors from the NJ Experiment Station included R.B. Farnham, who created a watertight bench system in 1936, along with a sub-irrigation method of delivering the nutrient solution to plant roots, and Dr. J.W. Shive, credited with developing a drip irrigation method of nutrient delivery in about 1927.

Biekart and Connors proved that carnations grown in sand, and fed a liquid nutrient solution had the same characteristics as their soil-grown counterparts, with respect to appearance, size, and longevity after being cut – yet, they were grown for a lower cost. These cost savings are realized by reducing the need for fertilizer applications, and by eliminating the need to manually water, weed, and cultivate the plants. They also found that there were fewer issues with diseases and insects.

Robert Withrow, of the Purdue University Experiment Station in New York, developed an even more practical sub-irrigation system in late 1939. His design placed the tanks beneath the benches with nutrients delivered to the watertight benches via centrifugal pump, allowing it to drain back into the tanks using gravity. This technique initially was known as the Withrow method but has since become more popularly identified as the “ebb and flow” or “ebb and flood” method. This method suited itself ideally to much larger applications, thus improving the commercial potential of hydroponics.

J.P. Martin, the head pathologist at Honolulu Experiment Station, began conducting experiments growing sugarcane in sand culture in 1932. Cornell University built a hydroponic research greenhouse. Other Agricultural Experiment Stations that provided key research for the soilless growth of plants included Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Internationally, the British Ministry of Agriculture took notice of hydroponics, promoting the technology during the Grow More Food Campaign before and during the war. Professor Shinichiro Kasugai with the agriculture department at Tokyo Imperial University was the first agrobiologist to succeed in growing rice, sweet potatoes, and melon plants to harvest via soilless methods without supplemental aeration. By 1940, experimental hydroponicums were established in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Israel, Japan, India, Russia, Germany, and South Africa.

In the next installment, we’ll look at how hydroponics went viral despite Gericke’s reservations and events during the war years.

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 II: The Birth of Hydroponics

After a short period of little progress, hydroponics really began gaining momentum as a valid growing technique at the beginning of the 20th century.

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.