How Did Public Aquariums Develop?

Figure 1. Goldfish being kept in a pond. Goldfish were the first type of fish purposely raised as pets.

Large public aquariums have become fixtures in most major urban regions. In some places, they have become among the leading attractions for city tourism, where many aquariums have also expanded into conservation efforts and applied research along with being tourist destinations. The history of such aquariums is not completely modern, although the form in which we know aquariums today is mostly a recent development.

Early History

Artificial fish ponds were likely the first type of aquarium in antiquity. In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, fish were likely placed in artificial ponds, as most cities were located along rivers and fish likely served as sources of food but possibly also amusement. It is possible that sacred fish were kept in temples not so much as pets but rather as symbols or embodiement of fish gods. For instance, the god Dagon, mentioned in the Bible, was often depicted as a fish god. The Egyptian goddess Hatmehit, similarly, may have had fish represented with her. In Egyptian reliefs, fish have been displayed as being placed in artificial environments, including ponds or lakes created in gardens or specific places.[1]

Perhaps China is the best known early culture for developing what became fish pets. China, for over 2000 years, has known to have bred carp for their color and beauty, what we call today as goldfish (Figure 1). The koi, a type of carp perhaps originally from Iran and Central Asia, was likely imported to China and over centuries developed the variety of colors we see in many types of goldfish today. The Jing dynasty (265-420 CE) was the first to record the process of raising goldfish for their color and raising as ornamental fish. While initially the carp may have been raised for food, it was noticed that sometimes fish naturally produced colors such as orange or red as a type of mutation. This led to these fish being bred for their colors in royal settings and estates of the wealthy. The raising of goldfish soon became a source of pride for royal Chinese figures and officials, where goldfish varieties were even raised indoors, enabling some types that would normally die easily in an outdoor environment to thrive and adapt better to the indoors.[2]

The Romans may have been the first to put glass in their indoor aquariums. Sea fish were popular for food in ancient Rome, where archaeological remains suggest that the Romans may have even constructed their ships to transport live fish through tanks contained within the vessels that would suction in sea water. This taste for live fish may have prompted development of aquarium tanks. At first, Romans seemed to have used marble to keep sea fish in. Later, as glass technologies improved and became more durable, the Romans, by the 1st century CE, began to use glass in tanks. This allowed those wanting to eat fish to view what they were getting more easily. Romans did likely keep fish as pets as well in ornamental ponds. In fact, they may have been the first to keep saltwater fish as pets. However, it seems most fish tanks were likely used for keeping fish to eat.[3]

Development of the Public Aquarium

Figure 2. The first large public aquarium in Paris.

Where fish tanks did exist, they were mostly for private use in the ancient world. Fish ponds did, however, become more public spaces in Medieval Europe, as cities and towns developed these as places to store fish for food and raise them as a type of fish farm. In the 17th century, goldfish were introduced to Europe, which, for the first time, brought a type of fish that exclusively was bred for its looks rather than taste. With the development of palatial gardens, goldfish, similar to China and Japan, began to be raised as ornamental animals.[4]

While interest in ornamental fish increased in Europe with greater access to wealth and contacts with China, the main development that made public aquariums took time to develop. The major development was the innovation of the Wardian case, which was a type of glass container used to house plants initially so that they can be studied and observed. Although this development by Jeanne Villepreux-Power in 1832 was made for the study of plants, it was soon realized that live fish could be contained within these glass enclosures along with the plants for long periods. Soon after, others began to experiment with a variety of fish species, where they were placed in tanks to see how they would respond. It was evident to scientists that plants that lived in water provided oxygen that fish could use, allowing may types of fish to be kept indefinitely so long as the number of plants was sufficient for the number of fish.[5]

Mostly, until about the 1850s, fish keeping in aquariums was the privy of scientists or those wealthy enough to have such interests. Things changed after the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The first large public aquarium was built at the London Zoo (in 1853) in Regents Park, where the tanks were mostly metal-framed structures created by Phillip Gosse, who used the term aquarium for the first time. The so-called "Fish House" in the London Zoo pioneered the use of a series of fish tank containers along the walls and other exhibits in the main floor of a dedicated building to fish, which now provided the odel for other zoos and dedicated aquariums to emulate. Now it became fashionable to collect exotic and strange species for public display, particularly as public curiosity fueled interest. By the 1850s and 1860s, other cities in Europe, such as Paris, and North America began to build large public aquariums (Figure 2).[6]

Later Developments

While glass containers improved and were getting larger by the late 19th century, particularly as more major cities in Europe and North America began to build aquariums, the general approach to keeping fish did not change much during the late 19th century. It was only in the early 1900s that more innovations made it possible to dispense with plants all together. Since the 1830s, the "balanced aquarium" approach of keeping fish meant that you could only have a given number of fish in a tank based on the number of plants you had. Charcoal-based filtration and mechanical air pumps were invented to allow oxygen to be pumped into tanks as a replacement for plants; this soon became the primary way in which tanks kept fish throughout the early 20th century, although plants were often retained for their ornamental qualities.[7]

In the 1950s, the undergravel filter was introduced, which was a way to pump air through the base of the tanks (or the gravel acting as the base of the aquarium). From the 1950s and into the 1970s, more varieties of fish were also introduced at aquariums to further peak the interest of the public. During the 1960s, dolphinariums were developed in North America first and then later Europe, where this proved to be very popular in drawing larger crowds to aquariums and what soon developed as larger private safari and other parks. The 1960s also saw the development of new sealant technologies that allowed glass only rather than glass and metal aquariums to be developed.[8]

Filters continued to be improved, including the wet-dry filter in the 1980s, that allowed more exotic corals to be kept more easily. With the environmental movements of the 1970s, aquariums, similar to zoos, increasingly began to focus towards conservation efforts. Major oil spill disasters, for instance the Exxon Valdez, led rescued sea otters and wildlife to be transported to aquariums such as the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. In fact, for decades, the Shedd was the largest aquarium anywhere and pioneered the development of permanent saltwater fish displays. Other major aquariums, such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, have largely re-branded themselves as research and conservation facilities, although public display helps to fund their activities and educate the public.[9]


Modern aquariums largely began to develop in the 1830s; however, their concepts go back much further. Although ancient Near East and Egyptian societies likely kept fish and perhaps even pet fish, Chinese cultures were the first to greatly focus on raising fish specifically for their ornamental looks and display. A great limitation was fish tanks and ways to allow fish to easily breath did not develop for some time. In fact, it was only in the 20th century that artificial pumps have allowed a variety of tanks and fish species to be kept. New pump technologies and sealants for fish tanks have now made aquariums relatively easy to keep, helping to make fish, today, the most common form of pet globally.


  1. For more on early fish keeping in Mesopotamia and Egypt, see: Vernon N. Kisling (ed.) (2001) Zoo and aquarium history: ancient animal collections to zoological gardens. Boca Raton, Fla, CRC Press.
  2. For more on the development of goldfish, see: Ricardo Calado, Ike Olivotto, Miquel Planas Oliver, & Joan Holt (eds.) (2017) Marine ornamental species aquaculture. Chichester, West Sussex, UK, Wiley-Blackwell, pg. 4.
  3. For more on how Romans kept fish, see: 1996. Aquarium Fish Magazine, 8 (9-11), pg. 49.
  4. For more on fish ponds in Medieval Europe, see: Adamson, M.W. (2004) Food in medieval times. Food through history. Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, pg. 42.
  5. For more on early fish tanks, see: Hibberd, S. (2017) The Aquarium and Water-Cabinet.Nikosia, TP Verone Publishing.
  6. For more on the early public aquariums, see: Kisling, 2000
  7. For more on early filter technologies and pumps, see: Delbeek, J.C. & Sprung, J. (2005) The reef aquarium science, art et technology. Coconut Grove (Florida), Ricordea Publishing.
  8. For more on the modern aquarium and its development, see: Hemdal, J.F. (2003) Aquarium fish breeding.Hauppauge, N.Y, Barron’s, pg. 8.
  9. For more on the role of aquariums today in marine and freshwater conservation, see: Helfman, G.S. (2007) Fish conservation: a guide to understanding and restoring global aquatic biodiversity and fishery resources. Washington, Island Press.