"The secrets hitherto known only to fishes and mermaids are laid open to all who choose to know them."
- Daily News
The earliest zoos have their origins in antiquity, being present in ancient cultures around the world. Aquariums, not surprisingly, have a much briefer, more well-documented history - the technology and understanding of biology needed to keep wholly-aquatic animals alive in captivity came to us much more recently.
While fish had been kept in bowls and ornamental ponds for some time, the major breakthrough in aquarium-keeping came about in the mid-1800s with the discovery of symbiosis - essentially, fish and plants could be kept in a tank together, each aiding the survival of the other through respiration and excretion. While not the initial discoverer, the credit often goes to Philip Henry Goose, a Victorian naturalist who was coping with a nervous breakdown through a vacation to the beach. Experimenting with keeping fish in tanks, he eventually achieved some level of success and presented his findings to the Zoological Society of London. The Society was convinced to give the aquatic displays a try, and the first public aquarium (called, perhaps inevitably, "The Fish House") was opened.
The earliest aquarium, opening in 1853, was a humble one. We would see more variety and more attractive habitats at a modern pet shop. There were no sharks or other very imposing sea creatures, and the tanks were small, along the lines of what we would expect for home aquaria these days. The creatures of display were those of the local rivers and streams, as well as fish and invertebrates of the North Sea, transported to the Zoo in casks of seawater via railway. Still, it was a tremendous novelty, the first of its kind - among the other firsts occurring here, the first photograph of a live fish (a pike, taken by Count Montizon) was taken
Nor was the aquarium quite as successful as Goose believed it would be - he and his colleagues had developed a method for keeping fish alive for longer than was previously possible, but it was by no means sustainable in the long-term. Keepers frantically tried to keep the plants and fish alive, adjusting the lighting and pumping water, sometimes by hand. Temperature regulation was another problem, and exhibits were often either too hot or too cold. Eventually, the whole thing was given up as a fiasco and the aquarium folded.
Domestic Aquarium, Shirley Hibberd. Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, 1891
A new aquarium did not appear at the London Zoo for fifty years. By this time, enormous developments had been made in the keeping of aquatic creatures. The phenomena was not limited to the zoo world, but had spread to the home environment also, with an explosion of hobbyists, amateur naturalists, and professional keepers and breeders fueling the business. Such an explosion of interest led to great changes in the way we take care of fish and aquatic invertebrates. We have more detailed knowledge about feeding and husbandry. We have more sophisticated technology for life support - filters, skimmers, pumps, chillers, etc. Some species are bred in captivity with great ease, and our knowledge of their veterinary care is far beyond what Goose and his colleagues could have ever dreamed of.
I wonder what those earliest fish keepers would think if they were to visit a modern public aquarium. They could go to the Newport Aquarium and meander through acrylic tunnels through the tanks, or watch shark rays glide past the enormous windows of their theater-like tank. They could have gone to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and descended through the ramps of the Atlantic Coral Reef tank, watching SCUBA divers service the exhibit. Or maybe if they were feeling adventurous they could have petted the sting rays at the South Carolina Aquarium while gulls, ibises, and other marsh birds swooped overhead. The site of whale sharks and giant manta rays at the Georgia Aquarium would have doubtlessly left them speechless.
Our modern aquariums are beyond anything that the Victorians could have dreamed of, yet they are the ones that made it possible. They showed the world that fish could be kept alive in aquaria (albeit briefly), the inspired others to improve upon the methods. That's the wonderful thing about innovation, in this field or any other - every improvement paves the way to future improvements that the original innovators could hardly imagine.
I wonder what we would think about the aquariums of the future. I like to think that they'd be something we couldn't believe.