While the form of what we know today as an aquarium is largely a recent development, the history of such aquariums is not entirely modern.
For example, the god Dagon mentioned in the Bible is often depicted as a fish – god, and it is possible that holy fish were held as part of his body. Since most cities were situated along rivers, these fish would have been housed in artificial ponds, which were probably a source of food and possibly also a source of pleasure.
While the ancient societies of the Middle East and Egypt probably held fish and perhaps even loved fish, Chinese culture was the first to focus heavily on raising fish specifically for their decorative appearance and display. The biggest limitation were fish tanks; possibilities to allow the fish to breathe easily were not developed at that time. In fact, it was not until the 20th century that artificial pumps made it possible to maintain a large number of tanks and fish species.
In the 1850s, the popularity of aquariums grew, especially in the United States, and in 1853 the first public aquarium was opened at London Zoo. This made them relatively easy to keep, which helped to make them more popular with the general public than in other parts of the world. They were kept active by a balanced ecosystem of plants, animals and water; sunlight was essential to keep the aquarium healthy, and sunlight, as well as water temperature and humidity, helped to keep the fish and other animals in them healthy.
The first documented cases of aquariums occurred in the Middle Ages, with the first public aquarium at London Zoo in 1853. The first major technological advances began to affect the aquarium in the early 20th century.
The ancient Romans kept freshwater barbs (a relative of the carp) in marble boxes, probably representing fresh fish that their guests could enjoy during elaborate festivities. Goldfish were kept in porcelain bowls, and in the Middle Ages freshwater fish were often mixed with other fish.
The Romans may have been the first to incorporate glass into their indoor aquariums, but sea fish were also a popular food, with archaeological remains suggesting that they may even have constructed a system for transporting live fish in tanks with vessels that suck in seawater.
The English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse introduced and popularized the practice of observing marine animals and aquatic plants with glass containers, coining the word aquarium. Gosse’s observations of coastal life were described in his book Aquariums, a collection of photographs and descriptions of aquariums at various stages of development, and he explained how to build a miniature ocean in one’s own home. As glass technology improved and became more durable, the Romans began to use glass in tanks.
Knowing that plants are necessary to supply the tank with oxygen, Gosse recommended looking for plants on days when the tide goes out as far as possible and an area that is normally covered with water becomes visible. In many cultures there were aquariums for fish, which proved to be close companions of man for thousands of years. In other civilizations, fish may have been kept as decorative objects, or they may be part of the food chain, such as fish soup or fish and chips.
It was not until the 1800s that aquarium keeping became more popular, especially in Europe. Naturalism was of enormous interest in the 19th century, and scientists such as Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Friedrich Schiller experimented with primitive aquarium keeping. The balanced aquarium was the most successful form of use in the 19th century, since complicated pumps, filters, lamps and heaters had not yet been invented.
For example, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese, who stored fish in aquariums in order to oracle good and bad omens, knew the aquarium as a telling – good – omen or bad.
By contrast, the 19th century was the age of scientific discovery, and people began to understand the importance of the aquarium as a source of information and its role in the evolution of human knowledge.
Aquarium keeping developed into a popular hobby, and this initially led to the growing interest in aquariums in the United States. There were also a number of factors that led to enthusiasm for aquariums on both sides of the Atlantic.
Keeping fish in a narrow, artificial environment is a practice deeply rooted in history. From the 1850s, when the predecessor of the modern aquarium was developed as a novelty, to the 1950s, when more sophisticated systems such as lighting and filtering systems were developed to keep aquarium fish healthy, the number of aquarists increased. Today, a large number of aquariums are kept by hobby aquarists, ranging from simple tanks – housing for a single fish – to simulated ecosystems with carefully developed support systems.