Before the Reef Aquarium
Before there were successful reef aquariums, there were
successful freshwater and then fish-only marine aquariums. Going
all the way back to the 1950s, a few things helped to make this
possible—things that we most certainly take for granted today.
For starters, the airlines. It was in the 1950s that long-distance
flights began to “take off,” and this made it possible to transport
livestock to and from various places around the world. That
greatly increased the variety of organisms available, which helped
fuel the growth of the aquarium hobby. It also greatly improved
transport-related survival rates of those organisms when fast-flying jets began to replace propeller-driven aircraft.
The undergravel filter became available in the ’50s, too. At
the time, biological filtration wasn’t really understood. But
those undergravel filters, for whatever reason, worked very well.
The use of activated carbon came into play, too, and both were
milestones in maintaining water quality.
Before these, for the most part, aquarium keepers had to do
a lot of water changes in order to maintain water quality. In the
case of marine aquarists, that meant regularly collecting natural
seawater, as there were no synthetic salt mixes available yet. And
that, of course, meant relatively few people could have a marine
The Early Years
A lot of things had to happen in order to progress from fish-only marine aquariums to reef aquariums that would bear any
resemblance to one you’d see today. One of the big starts was
the use of a sand bed, live rock, and marine macroalgae to help
maintain water quality, and credit for doing so has always gone
to Lee Chin Eng. Sometimes called “the Father of Reefers,” Eng
first appeared in the pages of TFH in 1960, espousing his “natural
method” of running a marine aquarium.
Using this method, along with air pumps for water motion,
natural sunlight, and natural seawater, he was able to keep a
variety of fishes, corals, and other invertebrates alive and well.
And it seems that he had come up with the ideas that bacteria
played a large role in the functioning of a successful aquarium
and that macroalgae could be used to help keep water quality up.
Around that same time, and then over the next few years, a
list of good stuff hit the market, too. Norbert Tunze invented the
submersible powerhead pump and the protein skimmer and, with
Erwin Sander, started selling them to aquarists. No, these weren’t
anywhere near as effective and efficient as what’s offered today, as
they operated using an air pump and airstone in not much more
than a tube with a collection cup on top. They were also placed
inside the aquarium and were rather unsightly. But they worked.
Eugen Jäger came out with the first submersible water heaters,
too, which was another big deal that’s easy to overlook. Yes, a lot
of hobbyists have problems keeping their reef aquariums cool
enough. However, before high-output, high-heat lighting systems
were readily available, many hobbyists had trouble keeping their
tanks warm enough to house tropical organisms. Mr. Jäger made
it easy, though.
The first synthetic salt mix hit the market around this time,
too, and yet again, it was a huge step forward. Also, specialty fish
foods showed up, and the diversity of organisms that could be
kept expanded as well.
Moving through the 1970s and into the 1980s, box/hang-on tank
filters became popular, as did canister filters. Kalkwasser (calcium
hydroxide) also came into play as a means of maintaining the
calcium levels required for stony coral and coralline algae health
and growth. However, the adoption and use of metal halide and
high-output actinic fluorescent lighting was the most notable
change in how hobbyists ran their aquariums.
These were the first really bright lights used over home
aquariums, and they dramatically changed what could be kept
alive long term. Before these lights were available, hobbyists kept
primarily large-polyp stony corals, soft corals, and mushroom
corals, all of which could be maintained under normal fluorescent
lighting. But with metal halide and actinic lights, essentially
any types of corals could be kept. So, we had finally gotten to
the “real” reef aquarium, as in one that could be stocked with
anything we can keep today and maintained long-term.
The cover of the June 1962 issue of TFH featured Lee Chin Eng
of Djakarta, Indonesia, who is widely considered the father
of the reef tank.