Fishtory Series: The History of Aquariums and Fishkeeping

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Read Time: 5 minutes

In light of the history and traditions that come with the holiday season, welcome to the first part of our Aquarium History Series!  Folks from all backgrounds have been enthralled with fish for centuries. Here's a snapshot of the first fish tank people and the journey that got all of us aquarium addicts where we are now.

First Fishkeepers

These guys had very different fishkeeping goals than we do (I assume - maybe you're into cichlid fish sandwiches; I dont know). While we agonize over whether we actually want duckweed or where to put the infamous Spongebob pineapple decoration, most ancient peoples were interested in keeping fish as a nutrient-rich food source.

Just how long have humans been keeping fish? At least 6000 years, or about how long it feels like it takes to cycle a tank you just want to put fish in. We have evidence from roughly 4000 BCE indicating Neolithic people captured and kept aquatic life in small, natural bodies of water. Ancient Sumerians used ponds to keep caught fish alive and fresh before harvesting and cooking. Egyptians maintained man-made fish ponds full of Nile tilapia - a staple of their aquaculture from the pharaohs to the present - and Asian cultures bred common carp, koi, and goldfish and published one of the earliest guides to fishkeeping.

A green/red, carved wooden Nile tilapia hinged container from 17th Dynasty Egypt

A carved, wooden Nile tilapia from 17th Dynasty Egypt

It Wasn't Just Fish

People recognized the value of keeping plants with fish early on, too. Ancient Hawaiians created brilliant aquaculture/hydroponic systems with strategically-placed ponds (loko i‘a) ranging from saltwater to brackish to freshwater setups, contained and regulated with lava and coral seawalls and sophisticated gates.

They grew taro and green algae (algae isn't technically a plant, okay, I know, but it's close enough for this) alongside the fish, using the now well-known symbiotic relationship between the species to their advantage.

The Aztecs used an aquaponics system called chinampas, which created floating crop "islands" partially fertilized by fish and invertebrates. And Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia used brackish plant/fish setups for the first time. The Chinese frequently used fish in rice paddies, and so did Thailand, which is a large part of how the betta fish became so popular. 

Given how valuable fish were for food and for farming, it makes sense many of these cultures depicted and worshipped figures with fish features, like Ikatere (Polynesian) and Rem (Egyptian).

From Food and Faith to Fashion, Finances, and Fun

It didn't take long for fish to go from nutrition and mythos to a booming hobby and status symbol, especially in European societies.

The Roman writer and scholar Cicero penned the word piscinarii (Latin for "fish fanciers") as an insult towards the filthy rich who created fish ponds and ocean channels as a way to display wealth and power over nature rather than using their resources to aid the Republic.

He even went so far as to bitterly call the fish-loving aristocrats "Triton's of the fish ponds," mocking them for acting like gods of the water when they controlled so little of it and didn't contribute much else to society. Not sure what he'd think of today's much less lavish hobbyists, but I'd love a modern version of the insult like "Jesus's of the Nano Tank" or "Cthulhu's of the Fish Bowl." "Flying Spaghetti Monsters of the Betta Vase?" (Don't put your bettas in a vase).
Part of the Grotto of Tiberius at Sperlonga, Italy; a series of ancient Roman fish ponds. Turqoise water in a rocky grotto

Part of the Grotto of Tiberius at Sperlonga, home of several ancient Roman fish ponds

Medieval European monasteries and properties often had large fish ponds filled with pike and carp, as well. They were incredibly useful when other food was scarce or when Catholic fasting rules forbid eating meat. Of course, like the Roman ponds, these were also status symbols. Many of these ponds are long gone, but some have since been converted into gorgeous sunken gardens.

Beyond the status, though, many still cared for their fish like we do. One of the aristocrats Cicero made fun of was said to have cried "like he lost a child" when one of his favorites died. And in several Asian cultures, koi were considered prizes and sources of wisdom, peace, and beauty; so much so, emperors frequently visited fish ponds, and fish were often used as royal gifts. One emperor even established a ceramics company to produce huge fish basins in one of the earliest examples of custom fish tanks.

An Ancient Roman Air Pump?

We used to believe that was the extent of "fish tanks" in the ancient world and fish were only traded/transported long-distance dead. But in 2011, archaeologists discovered an ancient Roman shipwreck off the coast of Italy packed with amphoras (tall Roman vases) filled with fish. Strangely, they also found a lead pipe that purposefully pierced the keel of the ship. Based on previous findings, historians believe the pipe was part of a pump system that brought fresh seawater into the ship's hull.

Though it's possible this was just used for fire extinguishing or cleaning, they believe it could have also been used to create an enormous fish tank and provide a source of oxygenated water to keep fish alive. If true, it could have been yet another way for the rich to show off by trading live exotic fish or feasting on them.

A Giant Fish House, A Bunch of Scientists, and A Lot of Glass and Metal: The Aquarium Origin Story

The first "aquarium" in terms of the glass containers we think of now exploded in the 1800's (probably literally, at first, since they had to convert from vivariums to containers that could withstand water pressure).

A brilliant scientist named Jeanne Villepreux-Power, called The Mother of Aquariophily, invented the aquarium to aid her experiments with marine invertebrates. She actually had three different aquarium designs based on what she needed for her lab work, and it was these designs that led to the establishment of modern tanks. 

We can thank a guy named Phillip Henry Gosse for inventing the word "aquarium" after he said, "All right, I'm tired of saying "aquatic vivarium" over and over again." Gosse, a well-respected zoologist, opened the first public aquarium in London, called The Fish House (creative), in 1853. It looked like a big greenhouse from the outside, but the inside was stocked with fish and aquatic invertebrates in glass boxes. And the Victorian public was smitten.

Black and white photo from 1875 showing the inside of The Fish House in London, a large glass building filled with glass fish tanks

Interior of The Fish House (Photo from Zoological Society of London)

A woman named Anna Thynne, who kept coral alive outside of the sea for several years and built the first balanced marine aquarium, inspired Gosse. Gosse also worked with another scientist by the name of Robert Warrington, a chemist who first proved what modern planted fishtank lovers have been preaching for years: aquarium plants produce enough oxygen for fish to live in a container as long as the fish load isn't heavier than the plant load.

The hobby started with marine animals, but soon, folks realized freshwater species were more readily available and those became more popular, too. Before long, many Victorian households included ornate glass aquariums with pitch-sealed wooden frames (and eventually metal frames) in endless shapes and spaces, with slate bottoms that could be used to control temps. As mechanical science evolved, so did the science, design, and equipment for fish tanks, and the hobby soon grew to what it is currently. 

An ornate, cast-iron-framed Victorian planted fish tank with a yellow angelfish in the foreground

A cast-iron framed Victorian aquarium, made in the 1880's (Photo Credit JR Pawlik)

Here are some sources and further reading for this post for all the other fishtank history buffs out there:

Ancient Roman Fish Tank Shipwreck? 

Aquaculture in Ancient Hawaii

The Fish House, Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

Piscinae: Ancient Roman Fish Ponds

Keep an eye out for future history post topics like History of the Betta Fish, History of Koi, Aquascaping through the Ages, Aquarium Science Breakthroughs, the crazy history of several aquarium plant species, Fish and Plant Myths/Legends, and anything else you might wanna know to impress friends at parties. As always, tank on!

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