Early cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans are known to have kept fish other then for the purpose of consumption as food.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) started documenting the science of fish (Ichthyology) by writing about habits and defining local fish species.
The most important contributor to the popularity of keeping aquariums and ornamental fish nevertheless, is the Goldfish, which was first documented in 960 during the Sung Dynasty in China.
Ponds stocked with Goldfish were gaining in popularity among the privileged from 968 - 975 and eating the fish was strictly prohibited.
In 1136 Emperor Hiau-Tsung started to breed and keep these fish in a more controlled environment. Several new breeds evolved which helped make them popular and known throughout the country.
By 1510 Goldfish were no longer a luxury for the privileged, but common among all people. Many houses and dwellings had ponds with Goldfish and breeding them flourished. It was very common to keep successful breeding techniques a secret.
However, the very first book “Essay about the Goldfish” was written in China in 1596.
1616 the Goldfish arrived in Japan. The Japanese mastered the breeding of this fish over time. They now are the largest exporter of Goldfish worldwide.
1691 the Goldfish made it’s appearance in Portugal, Europe. From there it arrived in England in 1728. At this time, the fish was popular throughout Europe’s privileged ruling class.
Holland was the first country to breed the goldfish in Europe in 1780.
1850 was the year where the Goldfish reached the New World and was the attraction of New York in 1865. Upon this success the first goldfish breeder of the US took shop in Maryland in 1888.
1850 England, marks an important date in history of aquariums. Up until then, fish where kept by rather primitive means.
Based on the works of Chemist Priestley and Zoologist Johnson, who realized the plant oxygen relation, Robert Warrington build the first aquarium.
His theory was, by building a glass structure filled with sand on the bottom, snails, and plants that can provide oxygen, fish can live forever. The plants would provide oxygen to the fish, snails eat decaying plants and lay eggs, and the fish feed off of the snail eggs. The perfect contained cycle.
As farfetched as this theory may sound, aquariums where successfully set-up on this principle well into the 1950’s. Planted aquariums held together by steel constructions, without filtration and heaters as we know today.
In 1856 a groundbreaking essay about “Sea in a Glass” by Emil Adolf Roßmäßler was published in Germany which is recognized as the beginning of the aquatic hobby as we know it today. The term aquarium by the way was used in writings starting as early as 1841.
It took many years to understand filtration. One of the first, the undergravel filter, was introduced in the 1950’s.
Up until 1952, all fish kept in captivity where fed live food. Dr. Baensch (Baensch Atlas) revolutionized the hobby by inventing flake foods.
From there on, the hobby flourished. Fueled by shorter transportation (air traffic was in it’s infant years), more and more breeders and the enthusiasts helped make the hobby more popular. The inventions and the understanding of water chemistry and fish within the past 30 years has enabled just about anyone to enjoy fish-keeping with little to no problems.