Article on the history and evolution of fish keeping.
Man has a long history of domesticating animals for their own use. This article focuses on fish keeping for pleasure as opposed to keeping fish around as a food source.
In the Beginning
Archeological evidence of fish-keeping dates back to the Sumerians (2500 BC) and the Babylonians (500 BC). Egyptians considered fish sacred, worshiping the Nile Perch among others. Romans also kept fish in tanks but perhaps not for as decorative purposes as the Chinese; keeping them fresh for the dinner table!1
Ornamental Purposes Only
The Chinese kept carp and started breeding them selectively during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Records show these fish were kept for purely decorative purposes; people were forbidden to eat them.
Ornamental goldfish made them way into Europe by 1691.2 According to Tullock, the 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys, referred to seeing fish being kept in a bowl and referred to the set up as "exceedingly fine."3
First Sustainable Fish Tanks
While excited about the prospects of keeping fish indoors, fish enthusiasts did not understand how the water needed to be "cycled" in order for fish to stay alive for long in doors. In 1805, Robert Warrington is credited with studying the tank's requirement to be cycled to keep fish alive for longer.
With the opening of the Public Aquaria at the London Zoological Gardens at Regents Park in 1853, fish keeping as a hobby reached a new level of interest. In 1856, German Emil Robmaber wrote an essay, Sea in a Glass," introducing fish keeping as a hobby to the public.4 This hobby required specialized equipment and attention at this point, reserving it for the wealthy. Fish tanks for tropical fish required heating via flames underneath (gas burning lamps underneath slate bottoms). When electricity was introduced into the home, fish enthusiasts began experimenting with electrical immersion heaters in glass tubes.5
Commercial Fish Breeding
Up until the 1920s, except for highly developed goldfish and carp keeping in Asia, most fish kept in tanks were captured in the wild. In Florida in the 1920s, entrepreneurs began the first commercial fish breeding businesses.6
1950s America - Flying Fish
Up until the 1950s, most commercial fish breeders needed to situate themselves close to their demands. After WWII, commercial fish breeders begin to use ex-combat pilots to transport their fish around the world. 3 We also see the introduction of the ubiquitous gold fish bowl making fish keeping immediately accessible to the masses. The independently wealthy are no longer the only ones enjoying fish keeping as an indoor hobby.
In the 1960s, fish keeping as a hobby improved as the industry went from glass framed tanks to glass sealed tanks allowing for better waterproofing of the tank. Further innovations include the advent of the acrylic tank, which is more lightweight, more crack resistant and lends itself to different shapes besides the basic rectangle glass tank.
Marine Tanks and Reef Keeping
The 1960s through the 1980s saw many developments in maintaining saltwater aquariums for the (albeit very serious) hobbyist as opposed to a more publicly funded zoo setting for saltwater tanks. Breakthroughs include understanding the role live rock plays in maintaining tank balances as well as advancements in filtration systems, including the use of protein skimmers and the wet-dry or trickle filtration methods. Understandings filtration systems, salinity need, and live rock requirements all helped propel forward the saltwater tank for the home hobbyist.7
Internet = One Big Fishbowl
In the past, people had to position themselves literally next to the shore to enjoy access to marine life. But now with the Internet, many large businesses have web store fronts that will ship saltwater fish and live rock to the buyer overnight! Most major online stores provide guarantees that can extend up to two weeks on the time they will stand behind their fish surviving after delivery. Besides serving as a huge storefront, the Internet has also provided great resources to both the budding novice and the expert fish hobbyist with years behind them.
With so many different species and even further breeding within the species and the advancements with keeping fish in aquariums, it is not surprising how popular fish keeping as a hobby has become. It's hard to say what the future will bring but the goal will probably be to reduce fish disease in tank kept fish, improve the global environment that fish live in, and work on making the tank even more self sustaining.