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Why Put Fish in a Glass Box?

  • River Aquarium, River Aquarium as illustrated in Hibberd's <i>Book of the Aquarium</i>, (1860 p. 15)., Horniman Museum and Gardens− © Kevin Edge
    River Aquarium as illustrated in Hibberd's <i>Book of the Aquarium</i>, (1860 p. 15)., Horniman Museum and Gardens

Before the development of the glazed tank, zoologists would use bell jars, sweet jars, vases, and drinking glasses to study aquatic life. Superior to any bowl or vase is an oblong container made of flat glass. This is because its exposing sides afforded ‘lateral viewing’ and an undistorted, ‘underwater’ view of an entire aquatic community – freshwater or marine. The interaction of plants, fishes and invertebrates could now be seen and recorded in detail. And no one need get wet.

Marine zoologist Philip H. Gosse (1810-1880) popularised the well-maintained rectangular glass vessel and coined the modern term of ‘aquarium’. One of his first tanks measured 2ft x 1ft x 1ft and held 20 gallons of water. It had glass panes secured with putty and wood beading, and a slate base covered in clay, sand, and rock. Suspended above the tank was an aeration unit, dripping two gallons of salt water into it each day.