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The Development of the Early Marine Tank

Gosse spent many years trying to understand the interplay of animals, plants, and photosynthesis in a captive saltwater community. He was not alone in his search for such “visible knowledge” (Golinsky, 2005 p.95), other pragmatic collectors and scientists were hard at work too.

As early as the 1820s, biologist Sir John Dalyell (1775-1851) was refreshing the seawater in his sea-anemone containers each day, keeping them alive for many years. Zoologist Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794-1871) put her ocean specimens into wooden boxes that relied on a system of hoses to refresh the water. Direct inspiration for the aquarium as a regulated environment came from the sealed growing containers devised by amateur botanist Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868). These glass cases had first been used to transport plants across the British Empire.

  • A marine aquarium in equilibrium, One of the Horniman's aquatic exhibits, Horniman Museum and Gardens− © Kevin Edge
    One of the Horniman's aquatic exhibits, Horniman Museum and Gardens

In 1852, Pharmacist Robert Warrington (1807-1867) and Gosse simultaneously published their independent findings on the biochemical exchanges between aquarium plants and animals living together in equilibrium (Brock, 1991). Combining experiment, calculation, and experience, aquarium pioneers devised an apparatus giving them a condensed recreation of a rock pool or seabed floor. The glass-sided microcosm and life-support system had arrived.