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A Brief History of Fishkeeping

Nov 24, 2007
The history of fishkeeping dates back to antiquity, and one can only speculate as to its exact origins. Could it be for instance, that long ago in a distant land, possibly China, that a man took a fish from a pond, or stream, and placed it in a container? Thus becoming the first fish keeper!

Who knows for sure? I think anyone trying to answer this question would only be forming an opinion. It is quite probable that more than any one person was responsible for keeping fishes in captivity for reasons other than for food. Or maybe it was for this very reason that fishkeeping came about, possibly people were keeping fishes captive prior to eating them, and realised that a closer examination of these creatures afforded them aesthetic pleasure because of their colour, shape, and movement.

It is more likely that it happened simultaneously in various places, and over a period of time. Whatever the exact origins, the simple fact remains that these first anonymous enthusiasts initiated a hobby that was to extend its bounds far around the world.

Early records do exist, some of which indicate that Chinese people were keeping Goldfish as "pets" as long ago as a thousand years. One of the earliest formal essays on fishes, The Book of the Vermilion Fish, was written in China in 1596; and somewhat later, Samuel Pepys, in 1665, made a diary reference about the keeping of fishes in the home. However, ichthyology goes back much further than that.

The science of ichthyology, the branch of zoology that studies fishes, represents over 2000 years of observations. These observations were carried out by thousands of dedicated men and women worldwide by practical experience, in a scientific approach, and have been tested over the ages using precision instruments, and mathematical analysis, and are now presented in a structured and systematic manner.

The written history of ichthyology coincides in general with that of zoology, which takes its start with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). He had a fairly accurate knowledge of the general structure of fishes, correctly distinguishing them from the aquatic mammals and cetaceans.

Aristotle's information on the habits of fishes, their special adaptations, method and time of propagation has proved to be surprisingly accurate. However, it is not easy to recognize the species with which he was dealing because his idea of a species was vague. He adopted the nomenclature of the local fishermen. It never occurred to Aristotle that local popular names change from generation to generation and from one locality to another. His world of ichthyology was limited to about 115 species, all-living in the Aegean Sea.

For almost two millennia, generation after generation followed Aristotle's observations. They copied his works, and lacked any observant interpretations of their own. It was an era when revitalisation was of the essence.

This was to take place in the early 16th century, when new and original observations were made, but even then works were limited and confined to specific areas of the globe, and there was indeed some speculation involved. However, during the 17th century, a new perception that abandoned speculation, and which only dealt with facts, was recognised. This was to reveal that there were many similar anatomical structures throughout the animal world; therefore, the first serious attempt at untangling the chaos that existed was possible by arranging animals into groups that were based on their structure.

It was during the 18th century that ichthyology was to become of age, when the works of a Swedish man named Peter Artedi (1705-1735) were to be recognised as having established the generic concept. His concepts were that the "Genus" represented a group of species that was typically consistent with each other, although, having minor characteristic differences. He then proceeded to group the genera into the "Family" conceptualisation that we know of today.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a close friend of Peter Artedi, and it was Artedi's system of classification, as historians will agree, that is reflected in the works of Linnaeus (his tenth edition of Systema naturae in 1758), following Artedi's death. This was to identify every animal and plant by two names.

The first was the generic name, and the second one was to identify the species, it was this identification of species that Artedi's system was weak. With this new "binomial nomenclature", every living thing can claim a specific place in the system and be catalogued. This was to be the most important event of the century.

The fountain-head of fishkeeping may not lie in Great Britain, but the first scientific paper on the theory and practice of the "balanced" aquarium was, it was published in England in 1850. Indeed, in the Victorian era, it was considered quite the fashion to have an aquarium in the home, and although public aquaria were being constructed throughout Europe during this period, it was in England that the first one was opened; this was the "fish house" at London Zoo.

In-between the two World Wars tropical fish aquaria became evermore popular, however, it was the aftermath of the Second World War that saw significant changes. Better facilities for import, especially by air meant that more species were obtainable, and at affordable prices. Aquatic Societies sprang up Countrywide; memberships of them increased enabling them to have shows and exhibitions, both at National level, as well as local; the number of serious breeders increased; all this gave new momentum to the hobby.

Nevertheless, gloom was waiting around the corner. During the 1950's the growth that was generated after the Second World War was followed by a decline. Many amateurs, which were only superficially involved with the hobby, saw their interest waning and consequently gave up. However, on the continent of Europe, and in the United States at that time; the hobby was flourishing and gathering momentum. Fortunately there were enough dedicated enthusiasts around the United Kingdom to tide us over that difficult period.

I'm glad to say those gloomy days have gone, and the hobby enjoys a new lease of life, it has re-established itself world wide, with a vengeance, gone are the days when one had to heat a slate bottomed aquarium with candles, or aerate the aquarium water from an old inflated car inner-tube, instead the aquatic industry produces a wide range of products and equipment designed to ease the task of fish keepers, it has become highly organised, and present day attitudes towards the hobby indicate no sign of decline.
About the Author
For more information about freshwater tropical fishkeeping please visit my site at www.freshwatertropicalfishkeeping.com for 30 years or more of fishkeeping experience. Or watch out for more fishkeeping articles from me, Kevin Yates at FWTFK
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