What is Hydroponic Cultivation? - A History

Hydroponics is the unique method of cultivating plants without soil and is derived from the words “hydro” (water) and the Greek ponein (to labor, toil) and ponos (labor). Although hydroponics has grown in popularity and importance over the last 80 years, its origins date back thousands of years.

Now newly termed hydroponics is the soilless growth and cultivation of plants with simple, early observations by early progressive thinkers and tinkerers. But, like many scientific discoveries and their evolutions to commercial application, progress came in fits and starts, with significant discoveries and realisations, followed by extended periods of seeming disinterest, mainly due to the unadvanced technical capabilities of the time.

Many written histories of hydroponic plant cultivation methods mention the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the first written record of which dates to about 290 BC.

Modern research questions whether the gardens were in Babylon at all, and through historical text & descriptions obtained that suggest that the primary growing media was a soil-based material watered at regular intervals. This soil-based material use in broad terms means that the gardens would not qualify as “hydroponic cultivation’ as a soil medium was used, which contained the elements for plant growth. Over time these nutrients are leached from the soil just as they are in intensive farming practices today, with dire consequences on crop production.

1579 - 1644: Jan Baptist van Helmont

Some of the earliest recorded research into the actual reasoning behind the growth of plants, published posthumously in 1648, was written by a Flemish chemist known as Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579-1644)

The understanding that a plant needs water as an element carrier for plant life to thrive and the knowledge from where plants derived their mass. Helmont was also known to articulate the word gas in early scientific learning of the time. Though his research methods lacked scientific validity, van Helmont’s line of inquiry and experimentation would ultimately lead to the understanding of photosynthesis.

Joan Baptista Van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine>

Jan Baptista van Helmont – Belgian scientist – Britannica>


1665 - 1728: John Woodward

In 1699, John Woodward (1665-1728), an English naturalist, antiquarian and geologist, challenged Helmont’s theoretical deductions by publishing the results of some of his “water culture” experiments conducted using spearmint cultivated in different sources of water. His experiments showed that the spearmint grew better in water to which he added small amounts of soil versus “plain” water and distilled water. Unfortunately, his research also led him to the conclusion that more than water was necessary for plant growth. That soil was at least partly responsible for the increase in the mass and weight of plants, indicating that he also failed to grasp the fundamental concepts of plant nutrition. By adding soil to the solution, he was only partially correct, as we will learn as time & science progresses.

John Woodward – Naturalist – Wikipedia>

1801 - 1887: Jean-Baptiste Boussingault

Unfortunately, progress in these areas of research remained stagnant until the first actual water culture experiments undertaken by a French agricultural scientist and chemist, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault (1801-1887)

Where around 1840. Boussingault had established the very first agricultural experiment station near Alsace, France, four years earlier and was responsible for many discoveries related to soil chemistry and plant nutrition. His experiments involved raising plants in various soil substitutes, including sand, ground quartz, and charcoal, which he irrigated with mineral nutrient solutions.

Jean-Baptiste Boussingault – Wikipedia>

Jean-Baptiste Boussingault – Britannica>

Jean-Baptiste Boussingault – British Agricultural History Society>

1803 - 1873: Justus Freiherr von Liebig

Also, in 1840, Boussingault’s fan and contemporary, German chemist Justus Freiherr von Liebig  (1803-1873)

First published Die organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie (Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology), proffered the ridiculous proposition that chemistry could drastically increase yields and cut the costs associated with growing food.

Liebig made significant scientific contributions to agricultural chemistry and was the first to put forth a theory on mineral nutrients, identifying as essential to plant growth the now-familiar elements including nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Interestingly, Liebig’s major downfall was his lack of experience in the practical applications of his research. One of his best-known achievements was developing nitrogen-based fertiliser, arguing in the 1840s that it was necessary to grow the best possible crops. However, he later convinced himself that there was plenty of nitrogen supplied to plants through ammonia contained in precipitation and strongly argued against using nitrogen in fertilisers in his later years.

Despite his wavering, Justus Freiherr von Liebig became known as the father of the fertiliser industry. Not only for his identification of nitrogen and other elements as necessary for plant growth but also for his development of the Law of the Minimum, which observed how individual nutrient components affected crop growth.

Justus Freiherr von Liebig – Wikipedia>

Justus Freiherr von Liebig – Britannica>

1832 - 1897: Ferdinand Gustav Julius von Sachs

In 1860 Ferdinand Gustav Julius von Sachs was a German botanist and the author of Geschichte der Botanik, a History of Botany in 1875, which became a highly regarded historical chronicle from the mid-1500s through to the mid-1800s. The book was about the various branches of botanical science, where he published his nutrient solution formula for water culture” and revived the use of this technique as the standard tool when researching plant nutritional needs. His plant nutrient formula, with only minor changes, was almost universally used for the next eight decades.

Sachs’ experiments blazed the trail, and in rapid succession, other scientists followed up his work, the most notable of which was A German agricultural chemist Johann August Ludwig Wilhelm Knop.

Ferdinand Gustav Julius von Sachs – Wikipedia>

Ferdinand Gustav Julius von Sachs – Britannica>

1817 - 1891: Johann August Ludwig Wilhelm Knop

While Sachs’ interests lie primarily in studying plant processes while establishing botanical knowledge, Knop could be rightfully called the true father of water culture. His experiments laid the foundation for what we now know today called hydroponics.

In his early experiments, Knop sprouted seeds in sand and fibre netting before transplanting the seedlings into cork stoppers with drilled holes, securing them with cotton wadding, and then suspending them in glass containers filled with solution. By doing so, Knop inadvertently established the technique most widely used for future laboratory experiments.

Using this method, Knop was the first to realise that plants gain a large amount of weight simply from the food stored in their seeds and that seeds provide nourishment to the parts of the plant that form first. In addition, by this time, it had been established that soil nutrients must be in a soluble form for plants and that the number of soluble nutrients in soil was minuscule compared to those that were insoluble. These two pieces of information would form the basis for Knop’s future scientific experimentation.

What wasn’t available then were specific ways to measure these properties, such as osmotic pressure, nor did researchers of the day know what those properties might be. And while Knop deduced that nutrient solutions that were too concentrated might do more harm than good, he had no idea why.

Despite this lack of understanding, in 1860, Knop successfully grew plants without soil, weighing many times more than their seeds and containing a larger quantity of nutrients. In 1868, other scientists using Knop’s methods grew buckwheat plants weighing 4,786 times more than their original seed and oats weighing 2,359 times more. These experiments firmly established that plants can be grown successfully and productively without soil.

Johann August Ludwig Wilhelm Knop – Wikipedia>

1882 - 1970: Dr William Frederick Gericke

All Was Quiet

Over the next few decades, little effort towards developing commercial applications continued to leave the promise of water culture unfulfilled. Until; Dr William Frederick Gericke (1882 – 1970).

In 1929,  Dr William Frederick Gericke announced to the world that he had created a new technology which he called hydroponics.

He used two greek words to make up the name, “Hydros” for water and “ponos” for work. So, the name means “water working”.

To Gericke, the technology was growing plants without soil, using a water culture which supplied all the plant’s nutrients through their water supply.

He had invented a new technology that put plants into a substrate to support the plant’s roots and then added minerals to the plant’s water supply below the substrate.

Dr Gericke became famous for his unique plants grown in hydroponics. Several magazine and newspaper reports were published about his work.

Time Magazine 1937 – Science Hydroponics – Dr William Frederick Gericke>

The Louisville Times 1945 – Dr William Frederick Gericke>

Dr William F. Gericke of the University of California extended laboratory experiments to further studies on nutrition in practical, commercial crops growing outside. He coined the term “hydroponics”, a word derived from the Greek words hydro, meaning water and ponos, meaning labor, or “water-working.” His work is the basis for modern hydroponic growth.

Gericke was the person who coined the term “hydroponics” in his book The Complete Guide to Soil-less gardening.

1938 - 1946: The US Military

The US Military made more recent advances, mostly innovations conceived through necessity. One example is Wake Island, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean and frequent refuelling stop. Incapable of producing crops, the rocky terrain prevented traditional farming. The US Air Force made small, 120 square feet hydroponic growing beds, eventually producing a weekly yield of 90 pounds of fresh produce every week.

Advances in hydroponics have grown tremendously in the last century. As a result, we now fully understand that healthy plants require water, sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrients to thrive.

The US Military – Pacific Islands and WW2>

Science Supplement – A Hydroponics Farm on Wake Island>

1938: The Chemical Culture Company

Businessman Ernest W. Brundin was very interested in Gericke’s work and ended up experimenting himself by growing tomatoes hydroponically. It went so well that he soon produced tons of tomatoes and secured contracts to supply several transcontinental trains and steamships. He named his company “The Chemical Culture Company” and was so successful that by May of 1938, he had already secured contracts to supply the dining cars of eastbound transcontinental trains. Eventually, Brundin secured steamship dining contracts, shipping them for sale as far away as New York City.

The Morning News from Wilmington, Delaware 1938>

1952: 8 Million Pounds

According to the special hydroponics branch of the US Army, over 8 million pounds of fresh produce is grown for the military using the growing method.

Bloomsbury Collections – Chapter 8. Hydroponic Imperialism: Race, Hygiene and Agro-Technology in Occupied Japan, 1945–60>

1965: Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

NFT is a hydroponic technique developed by Allen Cooper at the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute in England. The method involves a very shallow stream, or a “film” of water, recirculating past the bare roots of plants in a gully/channel where all the required dissolved nutrients are in the water solution.

Nutrient Film Technique – Wikipedia>

1976: General Hydroponics

Founded by Larry Brooke, General Hydroponics develops hydroponic systems and products for hydroponic cultivation, which are excellent systems for leafy greens such as lettuce. Still, it has significant drawbacks when cultivating large root annuals such as tomatoes.

1982: EPCOT: Gardens of Tomorrow

Disney introduces the world to the “gardens of tomorrow” at EPCOT’s brand new Land Pavilion – featuring many different hydroponic techniques. The pavilion is still going strong today with interactive hydroponic experiences.

EPCOT Gardens – Wikipedia>

The 2000's: NASA

Over the last few decades, NASA has extensively researched hydroponics for its Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS).

Nasa – Controlled Ecological Life Support System. Life Support Systems In Space Travel>

Nasa – NASA Research Launches a New Generation of Indoor Farming>

2007: 200 Pounds of Tomatoes

Eurofresh farms in Arizona sold more than 200 pounds of hydroponically grown tomatoes.

The 2010's: Organic

The USDA has ruled that hydroponically grown plants can be labelled organic: “Certification to the USDA organic standards is currently allowed, as long as the certifier can demonstrate it is certifying in a way that complies with the standard.”

US Gov – Organic Hydroponics and Aquaponics>

Beyond Pesticides – Got Organic>

2014: Aeroponics

Caleb Hunter and his team at the MIT Media Lab discover and develop aeroponics. It is a form of hydroponics – in that it is soilless growing – but instead of the plants sitting in the water, the roots of the plants are sprayed with a nutrient-rich mist. There is no growing medium used below an anchor point.

Aeroponics – Wikipedia>

2018: Jones Food Company

At 17-Stories high, Jones Food Company is Europe’s largest vertical farm. They were founded in 2016 and started growing their first crops in 2018 in their facility in North Lincolnshire, UK. With 26 tennis courts worth of space and growing 365 days a year, they produce hundreds of tonnes of produce (fresh herbs, leafy greens, root veggies, soft fruit).

2018: VÄXER

If you thought this one sounds like something you would find at Ikea, you’re right. In 2018, Ikea introduced their VÄXER line of products, providing all you need to grow some hydroponic herbs or veggies at home.

Intelligent Living – Grow Your Own Food At Home With IKEA’s Indoor Hydroponic Garden>

2019: World’s Largest Hydroponic Farm

Emirates Flight Catering and Crop One Holdings are building Dubai’s world’s largest hydroponic farm. The 130,000-square-foot facility will produce over five tonnes of produce every day (all free of pesticides and herbicides). Even though it is soilless, hydroponics uses less water than traditional farming. The company claims that the technology will use just 320 gallons of water and 100 square feet of land to produce the same amount of leafy greens that traditional farming would require 827,640 square feet of land and 250,000 gallons of water to produce.

Produce Grower – Crop One and Emirates Flight Catering’s joint venture aims to build largest vertical farm in the world>

2020: Undercurrent RDWC takes front stage

With a Chemical sterilisation agent within the nutrient solution, this addition eliminates all biological life within the solution to prevent a possible pathogenic infection. As a result, the undercurrent hydroponic system achieves greater yield results in cultivating large root fast growing annuals such as tomatoes etc, than systems that have come before.

Grozine – New Under Current Hydroponic System Review>

Grozine – ClearLine Hydroponic Hypochlorous Acid Review>

2021: In-Store Hydroponic Farm

Quality Food Centres (QFC) in Seattle teamed up with a vertical-farming startup from Germany, InFarm, to set up in-store hydroponic growing next to the produce aisle in a couple of their locations. They produce kale, crystal lettuce, and cilantro. Dubai is also introducing in-store hydroponic farms in a few places, producing about 10kg of fresh herbs and micro-greens daily – which typically utilise up to 1 acre of farmland.

2022: High Tech Greens - BCRDWC system

A new cultivation system design and function are introduced onto the world termed the Balance Cascade recirculating deep water culture or the BCRDWC hydroponic system. This system benefits from mycorrhiza inoculation application and balanced cascade control. Which combined allows the expansion of the system exponentially. Also, the BCRDWC hydroponics system, due to its functional perimeters, enables the use of nutrient micro dosing utilising statistical data-driven control.


A bold Agri-tech future awaits with BCRDWC.

Please visit: High Tech Greens – www.hightechgreens.com


2025: Continued Market Growth

Hydroponics offers many advantages to traditional farming, including using less water, better allocation of space, no soil needed, no pesticides, climate, and environmental control, faster plant growth, and less labour required. And the food it produces is just as tasty and nutritional as ever. With all that in mind and the continued strain population growth is putting on the world’s water and food supplies. Some prognosticators are predicting the global hydroponic market to eclipse $16 Billion by 2025 – and to keep going up from there as we change the way we cultivate towards a cleaner, brighter future for all humanity, utilising science to create a balance with nature.