For millennia, humans have been keeping fish in some or other kind of artificially created environment. The earliest known civilization to keep fish were the Sumerian people. Over 4000 years ago, around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians kept and raised fish in ponds in order to have less difficulty catching them for food. Ancient Roman merchants, too, kept public aquariums as a means to display their goods to potential customers.
Not only Roman merchants, but diplomats also were known to be fish fans. Cicero a renowned Roman orator and statesman – reported that his friend and Roman advocate Quintus Hortensius wept when a particularly fine mullet which he had paid 8000 sesterces for, died.
The wide variety of colours, shapes and sizes of fish, as well as their surprising speed and agility have led some ancient cultures to see fish as sacred animals. In Egyptian tombs, fish – specifically the Nile Perch – are featured among the hieroglyphics, implying their holiness and importance to the culture.
Goldfish may be the earliest known domesticated fish kept purely for aesthetic or hobbyist reasons. Commonly incorrectly associated with Japanese culture, keeping goldfish (which is actually part of the carp family) originated in China over around 3,500 years ago, and spread to Japan much later, only around the 1500s, at which point it became an instant craze.
In the late 1600s, the craze made its way to England, were the fishs popularity continued to grow rapidly. Goldfish ponds and ornamental lakes were widespread throughout the country, and by the 1800s they were commonplace in America too. The inspiration for sealed glass aquarium is the same design that inspired the terrariums of today, the Wardian case, which was initially developed as a means to protect delicate foreign plants from dying when being shipped back to England in the 1800s.
The term aquarium was first used by a doctor, Philip Henry Gosse, who opted for the term rather than aquatic vivarium or aqua-vivarium in the title of his book in 1854: The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. Around this time, keeping fish as a personal hobby began to spread, as opposed to having them in communal viewing areas. It was still a while, though, until the intricacies of fish keeping, such as water filtration and cycling, were learned.
The worlds first public aquarium opened in 1853 in Regents Par in London, sparking a trend throughout the rest of Europe which spread first to Germany and France. Today, public aquariums looks vastly different to the fish displays of old; an especially interesting example is Berlins AquaDom, an eight story cylindrical fish tank with an elevator that runs up its centre. It takes 2 or 3 divers to clean the tank on a daily basis to keep it looking pristine as it is.
With so many diverse ways of keeping fish, and our knowledge of how to best look after them getting better with time, who knows what kinds of fish tanks well see in the future? One things for sure though: they will be easier to maintain, and healthier for the fish who live in them.