1938: Magic Prices in hydro set in

PupillaCharites(FL 9a)March 7, 2014

Thought I'd share a bit of history (somewhat biased, but going far enough IMO) on exaggerated profits in hydroponics since it's been a subject of some posts.

It began in 1938. Dr. Gericke, at U Cal Berkeley was snubbed by his peers in the 1920's when he suggested that hydro would be a commercially successful branch of agriculture. His peers refused to give him even a token space in the University greenhouse for his experiments and scoffed at the idea as a waste of taxpayer money that hydro offered any benefit that could not be achieved in soil.

From the late 1920s to early 30s, during the heart of the great depression, the good doctor 'moonlighted' and 'weekended' his backyard with his research and developed the first modern nutrient solutions on his own time. The results were amazing and even exaggerated on top of that. He showed off 25 foot long tomato vines. It was very costly, as DIYers can imagine, and very time consuming to have a vision that his employers spurned.

After years of getting brushed off, home grown results - suddenly he had all the space in the greenhouse he needed and students studying under him. Soon, trans-oceanic flight was even more awesome then as modern day spaceflight today, and Gericke sent a student to get Pan Am up and running on tropical Pacific Wake Island where a commercially successful operation was the darling of the Jet-Age where other farming methods were impractical due to lack of soil, and fresh water was scarce. War was also brewing and the US Army soon spared no expense expanding hydroponic operations for strategic reasons in the Pacific.

40,000 written requests had come in to the University. What are the magic chemicals? Guys, my work at the University to improve systems is one thing, I'm freely sharing it with everyone, look at these systems.

As for the nutes, remember you said I was wasting taxpayers' money? Remember the criticism and professional difficulties I had fighting to get this moving, and how I was financially hurt while you didn't give me a dime of taxpayers' money? The least you can do is let me perfect my formulas (crops are different) here in the university greenhouse to be fair to me. The current formulas are still preliminary and were wholly developed at home.

Instead, senior faculty at the University again snubbed him and pirated what it could from his work as well as utilized the prior literature anew, giving the juicy fast track grant to two others who were politically privileged internally, and they developed, with generous taxpayer funding the Hoagland solution, developed in 1933 and supposed honed several time till around 1940.

History,in terms of assigning credit for ideas in academia tends to forget that the two gentlemen who both later made a career out of hydroponics began their work with the explicit agenda to discredit Gericke, supported by the administration, by designing their experiments not to optimize hydroponic yields, but rather wasting taxpayer money to debunk Gericke's claims that hydroponics could create greater yields than soil agriculture.

To be fair, it is likely that Gericke had made some statements that were conjecture, however a critical look at the attitude of the faculty can more plausibly be interpreted as backing Gericke into a corner denying him resources to completely develop the technology he championed and they discouraged, while the establishment professors utilized their power to criticize and appropriate his material at his expense for a decade. Later, the tune changed from "hydroponics is nothing worth doing commercially", to Gericke "didn't give us his recipe". Hoagland himself was connected politically and spent much time on administration; for a time he chaired the University's budget committee governing grants for use of the greenhouses among other research resources ...

Here's an early 1937 advertisement I found from an early hydro nutrient entrepreneur who got a formula based on the Hoagland and Arnon paper:

"SOILLESS AGRICULTURE: Raise tomatoes, potatoes, flowers, etc. in shallow tank of water containing 21 chemicals. Tomato vines 20 feet, bear for year, 20 pounds per vine, better than soil grown. Instructions, formula $1.00 (Los Angeles) "

$1 was only for the plans to build the system and a formula with chemicals that were not easy to find then. Then once you were hooked, you needed to purchase all those chemicals for an extraordinary markup. By 1939, since the formula had undergone some revisions, the ads began to stress, "latest formula", though who really knew what they were getting ... and things haven't changed much now on the 75th anniversary...

In 1939, this is what the press had to say about it:

"Soon concerns up and down the Pacific Coast were offering the magic chemicals for sale, often at outlandish prices, such as $2 for 4 cents worth of chemicals."

For his part, Gericke left the University in 1939 after singlehandedly founding modern hydroponics. He began his mission to bring hydroponics across the desert American southwest where it was widely speculated that farming could be on the brink of a new era (and transportation and refrigeration wasn't what it was today, so getting fresh vegetables this way was viewed as a great innovation).

This post was edited by PupillaCharites on Fri, Mar 7, 14 at 3:29

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Thank you very much Pupilla Charites for the research and insight as to where hydroponics began , you are also a man of vision sharing so much for those ( including me) who have been plodding along for years , not realising what has preceeded with our own infancies in trying to improve growing ,methods. I think we are all beginning to realise that there is a beginning but boy oh boy there is no end and that is what makes hydroponic gardening so exciting.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 8:32AM
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To add to my previous message, Hydroponics are really a blessing, next week my wife and I are of to Hong Kong for a couple of weeks.
I have organised a gardener to mow the lawns and generally look after our gardens, however with our hydroponic gardens running 3 different methods , we can leave and return to a healthy plants , what other method can offer the same benefits.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 8:39AM
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PupillaCharites(FL 9a)

Hi Robert, have a great trip! There's an unwritten historical chapter of hydroponics about Australia. It wasn't a coincidence since the first hydro commercial use was in the geographical nearby tropical/desert-ish Pacific Islands, the sensation first caught on internationally in Australia's popular press (by 1939), and that Australia has been a hydroponics' powerhouse of ideas ever since ;-)

Thanks, I'm glad it was worth putting together for a post...

    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 2:47PM
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Great post.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 3:59PM
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    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 4:25PM
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PupillaCharites(FL 9a)

Thanks Cole and Rio ;-) I better make an adjustment to it since you guys are reading.

The comment that the Pan Am Wake Island got a lot of attention didn't mean it was the first commercial operation. It was by far the most awesome, and was begun in January 1938. The first commercial operation was actually in Santa Cruz, CA around 1934. It was a spectacular tomato growing success, but a dismal financial failure due to the electric bill for keeping the solution heated.

One of Gericke's early innovations was recognizing that the frequent adjustments needed to be made to the nutrient solution could not require enthusiasts or farmers to dump it and refill it like scientists every time a small change was needed. Specifically iron needed to be regularly added (no chelates originally), and an early Gericke's DIY solution was to pack some fertilizer in wax and allow an iron salt to be slowly released by the melting of the wax, like in Gericke's 1930 patent application for a "Fertilizing unit for growing plants in water" which was issued to him.

My guess, anyway is that it was the rate of melting of the wax, and not the plants, that required the higher reservoir temperature control so everything worked, and contributed to the electric bill, maybe someone else can confirm.

There are some great comments in that patent, like:

"The production of plants in water by laymen was precluded by lack of knowledge, and by conveniences and other means available to the scientist. If a product could be obtained which would meet or supply the requirements of growth of plants in water without the necessity of the laborious and specialized features of the method as employed in scientific laboratories, laymen could grow plants in water. The invention herein to be described is such a product. It is a complete fertilizing unit that supplies to and maintains when added to a specified quantity of any ordinary potable water the required conditions and properties requisite for the growth of plants."

This post was edited by PupillaCharites on Fri, Mar 7, 14 at 23:40

    Bookmark   March 7, 2014 at 6:54PM
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Weren't all of the first systems built of concrete? The next big innovation to change hydro would have been plastics, in the 1970's, which allowed for less costly construction. After that came further plastics technology that developed low-cost poly greenhouse films.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 4:56PM
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PupillaCharites(FL 9a)

Hi Cole, The above 1930 patent was a very early prototype which included automatic acid and nutrient addition in very creative ways. But the very first systems in the mid-1930's like we use were nothing that would be out of place at your backyard or mine ... they were just shallow "tanks" usually made from lumber and then sealed with blacktop (an asphalt product), or tarpaper (the same thing is common today where PE film/sheet is now used in place of the tar paper).

The tanks were very shallow, usually 6 inches and the water level usually an inch below the top, and they were long, like you would expect for an agricultural row, but usually about 3 feet wide (hobby systems) or 6 feet wide (commercial) for convenience of reach. There were no net pots, but rather just multiple plant removable trays. Each tray was made by attaching the entire bottom of chicken wire on a simple wood rectangle of say, 1"x6"s and 1"x4"s --- by far the most common. You just lift them on and off the tank frame like picking up drawers. The media in each tray then covered the entire chicken wire for about 3-4" deep, they were cellulose products on top, like wood doll stuffing, wood shavings, and rice hulls. The trays fit snugly into to "tank" bottoms. in convenient sizes like a mosaic, usually one on each side of the width and anywhere from three (hobby size) along the length to more than a dozen (big and commercial) long. These were based on Gericke designs, and he did a lot of consulting through the 1930's and tended to credit enormously those who he consulted for allowing him to do practical hydroponics (imagine when he left the severely critical environment of the scientists at the university how he must have felt getting to tinker with tens of different variations of systems with people really enthusiastic to do it). Look at this, the only adjustments from Gericke's hobby design are the plastic film which replaces the asphalt paint, and that this talented Perth writer and Gardener used screws instead of brackets. Congratulations to George, you even got one of Gericke's favorites, potatoes! From that great country down under, here's a beautiful, productive "retro design".

Concrete was one of three choices for the bottom half (the "shallow tank" a.k.a., "basin", but not the trays). Concrete was in a decent proportion of early commercial systems. Concrete though had to prepared something like we should do with rockwool.

The thing about concrete is those systems lasted longer, so with the world going to war and people moving around, the numerous wooden systems that fell into disuse, just like today were not as durable so easily got mangled and tossed in the trash, like forgotten toys, lost without a trace. That gave an impression later on that early systems were concrete, because more of those survived. In addition to wood tanks and trays, and concrete (tanks), sheet metal was also used for tank making successfully after sealing in some of Gericke's designs.

Sounds right, but we'll have to do more research to be sure when the plastic systems got popular. PVC pipe took off in the early to mid-1950's but as you note, the real thing to see is when the first plastics that were both economical were widely available were applied to hydro systems.

This post was edited by PupillaCharites on Sun, Mar 9, 14 at 5:32

    Bookmark   March 8, 2014 at 7:41PM
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..."gave an impression later on that early systems were concrete, because more of those survived."

That is a really good point. It reminds me of the expression 'history is written by the winners.'

The timeline of 20th century hydro was probably also affected by the introduction of metal halide lights in the late 70s/early 80s, which made indoor growing feasible.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 6:46PM
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PupillaCharites(FL 9a)

Definitely agree with your comment about indoor growing being a big influence, plus, rockwool came on the scene in 1969, it really became convenient when insulation became a big deal and the oil crises started. The insulation companies were swimming in profits and had the resouces to develop products for new markets as they reinvested their profits back into their business. The new rockwool was optimized for the solution retention and capillary action as a super, conveniently marketed, inert growing medium.

Politically, I'm sure that Nixon singlehandedly was the incubator for a new crop of hydroponics companies - a huge boost in 1970-72; there are plenty of other forums to discuss that...

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 7:38PM
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