How Hydroponics Started: A Brief History

Photo of author

By Jeff Hale

The history of hydroponics, like the term itself, is rooted in Greek. Literally translated to “water working” or “working with water,” the word was first used by Aristotle to describe how it was possible for plants to grow without soil.

This led scientists and inventors alike on a long journey of discovery regarding the method behind this phenomenon.

Let’s take a brief but in-depth dive into where hydroponics came from.

The History of Hydroponics

Some of the earliest historical examples of hydroponics date back to the 1200s AD. In the Middle East, some agriculturalists were utilizing a system where nutrient-rich water was being poured on soil to allow plants to grow without having been planted directly in it.

Here’s a timeline of some of the most important hydroponic discoveries:

600 BC: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

1600s: Early versions of hydroponics were used as an irrigation method.

1940s: In the United States, a precursor was developed by Dr. Frederick McKay in 1883 when he discovered that adding borax to soil allowed tomatoes to be grown year-round in Florida without experiencing frost or other natural detriments of winter weather.

1950s: First real research on hydroponics began to take shape; it was seen as a means for improving agricultural output and increasing profits.

1960s-1970s: Hydroponic systems started becoming commercially available in the United States, had higher yields than traditional soil farming.

1980s: Hydroponics became a common practice in the greenhouse industry.

Modern Hydroponics

The hydroponic system is defined by its nutrient delivery method and can be used to grow plants indoors with or without the use of soil. It makes up a significant portion of large-scale commercial farming and it’s still being researched for new uses and innovations.

The most popular systems for commercial growers in North America today are:

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

DWC is the simplest form of hydroponics where plants are suspended above a nutrient solution. This allows oxygen to be infused directly into plant roots while eliminating the need for soil by providing all nutrients from the surrounding water source.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

NFT is a more advanced system than DWC, as it utilizes a “film” of water that flows through the roots. The nutrient solution is pumped into channels where plants are placed directly in or on top of them and then allowed to grow across horizontal planes.


Aeroponics is a system that is similar to DWC but instead of being suspended in the nutrient solution, plants are allowed to grow with their roots exposed. The hydroponic solution is sprayed up from underneath and then drips back down over plant roots for a controlled environment.

Ebb & flow or continuous floods

Ebb and flow is another system that is similar to DWC, but instead of plants being suspended above the nutrient solution they are placed on a tray with holes in it.

Water floods into the tray and then recedes for an ongoing cycle that allows roots to constantly be submerged in water while also getting access to oxygen from air bubbles coming up through them.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation is a hydroponic system that is similar to NFT in the way it supplies plants with water and nutrients directly.

However, instead of flowing through channels as they do in NFT, the nutrient solution falls onto plant roots at a slow rate for optimal plant growth without having to rely on pumps or electricity to keep them properly saturated all day long.


Finally, sub-irrigation is a system that is also similar to NFT, but instead of plants being suspended above the nutrient solution they are placed directly in it. The hydroponic solution flows up from underneath and then drips back down around plant roots for a constant influx of water and nutrients.

Did the Aztecs invent hydroponics?

While we haven’t found any evidence of it, there is a popular hypothesis that the Aztecs were using hydroponics to grow food.

One argument for this idea goes back to glyphs and other symbols on some Mesoamerican artwork which appears to depict plants growing in water rather than earth.

Another potential explanation comes from the fact that the Aztecs were known for their advanced irrigation techniques.

They built canals and dikes to control water runoff, allowing them to irrigate crops during periods of drought when other regions would not be able to grow food at all.

What ancient civilization used hydroponics?

Hydroponics is thought to have been used in ancient Egypt. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are one example where it was possible for plants to grow with only sand, gravel, and fertilizer being added directly into the irrigation system that they built around the city.

What does the future hold for hydroponics?

The future of hydroponics gardening is looking very bright! Technology has been advancing rapidly, and today it’s a more efficient method for growing plants and crops than soil.

People are even using the same equipment to grow other things besides plants such as vegetables or fish, not only in their garden but in their kitchens too.

However, despite its many benefits there still seems to be some resistance from consumers who are not familiar with hydroponics or skeptical about trying something new.