Aquarium History

Let the word AQUARIUM then be the one selected to indicate these interesting collections of aquatic animals and plants, distinguishing it as a Freshwater Aquarium, if contents be fluviatile, or a Marine Aquarium, if it be such as I have made the subject of the present volume. – The Aquarium, Philip Henry Gosse, 1856.

The start of modern aquarium-keeping is a neat story that has a fun tie-in with my birthday – which is today!

Here is the documentation I have accumulated so far.  Much of the literature is not freely available, so please let me know if you have something that could be added to this story!


Robert Warington, F.C.S.Robert Warington Senior

Notice of observations on the adjustment of the relations between the animal and vegetable kingdoms, by which the vital functions of both are permanently maintained

  • A letter by Robert Warington, FCS dated March 4, 1850 was read into the record of the Quarterly Journal of the Chemical Society of London – only the journal’s third year – where keeping fish alive in a balanced aquarium was apparently reported in detail for the first time.
  • Goldfish and plants had been kept together in about a dozen gallons of water.  At the time of writing, his aquarium had been a year-long success.
  • The aquarium hobby was born!
  • In 1850!!   (2017 minus 1850 equals…) 167 years ago!
  • He also wrote numerous basic chemistry articles which might be of interest to us as reefers.  Take a look!
  • Amazing dude.  Right there at the foundation of the chemistry industry.  WikiSource has a great Bio on him, digitized from the Dictionary of National Biography: Warington, Robert



Philip Henry GossePhilip Henry Gosse, 1855

The Warington-Gosse aquarium controversy: two unrecorded letters

  • This link is to a posting to the Archives of Natural History by a W.H. Brock in 1991 after one of Warington’s personal letters on the topic had recently come to light.
  • Warington had succeeded in keeping sea-water critters for six months!
  • He had written letters to more than one prominent journal about his success.  One such letter went to the Annals and Magazine of Natural History.
  • Coincidentally, the journal had received another letter on the same topic dated the very same day by a Philip Henry Gosse.
  • What a coincidence!
  • Not just a coincidence, but the date on their letters also happens to be my birth date.  Double coincidence for me!
  • In a nutshell, the two men formed a partnership to further their research. Warington was apparently the city-living lab rat and Gosse was the livestock collector.
  • At the time was probably collecting in the area around Ilfracombe, UK:–?node=224476165


While most of Warington’s work is still only available to Royal Society members, Gosse wrote many books that are still around today.  All appear to be in the public domain, so a sampling of them will follow.


The Aquarium: an Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea (1854)

  • A marine life and habitat survey that Gosse had published before the Handbook (next item).  He claimed the final chapter of this volume was the foundation for the Handbook.

I had lately been constructing two Aquariums; [… I] got the bottom and two ends made out of the yellow clay used for garden vases, chimney-tops, and other coarse pottery, and found it answered exceedingly well and has several advantages.  Partly as a means of supporting the ends, but pricipally to form artificial rockwork and shelter for the animals[…]. – The Aquarium, Philip Henry Gosse, 1856, quoting a W. Dodgson.


A Handbook to the Marine Aquarium: Practical Instructions For Contrsucting, Stocking, And Maintaining A Tank, And For Collecting Plants And Animals (1855)

  • A marine aquarium keeping manual published by Gosse that still carries water today.  (Necessary pun!)
  • Amazingly comprehensive – especially by today’s standards.  To be expected since there was hardly an industry yet…it was almost 100% DIY!
  • Gosse was keeping critters alive for around two years by this stage – only 5-6 years into the hobby
  • Two years is a limit that many modern aquarists still struggle to exceed.
  • It’s almost a little disheartening that we haven’t collectively come further in 160+ years of keeping aquariums than we have.  Lots of folks are still stuck in pre-1855, unable to keep a tank more than a year, but some are stuck all the way back in pre-1852 where even six months is a breakthrough.


Actinologia Britannica: A History of the British Sea-anemones and Corals

  • Another volume by Gosse.  Right up our alley, but for cold water critters!
  • Reading some accounts of anemone keeping in this book will recall familiar experiences for many modern reefers!

There are many more books if you search or and I may include some in future posts.

I hope this was interesting to everyone – please share any thoughts!

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