On the Man Who Invented the Aquarium (or How to Take the Sea Home With You)
Philip Henry Gosse invented miniature marine gardens, and he published a book on them titled simply, The Aquarium.
Like the art of bonsai, a taste for aquariums reveals a human desire to possess, however it can, the beauty of the natural world. Among its many obsessions, Victorian England saw the beginning of aquariums and also the creation of books to describe these miniature underwater gardens. Perhaps the most spectacular among them, both for its contents and its lavish illustrations, was The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea (1854), by the English naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse popularized the practice of observing the interactions of marine creatures in something that emulated their own habitats. He also coined the term aquarium to designate such a part of the sea as may exist within a room.
When still young, Gosse was already fascinated by marine life. This was even more so after a trip he made to Newfoundland, where he could observe colonies of seals and schools of codfish. Having collected insects from an early age, Gosse devoted many years to documenting everything he encountered. Soon after his first trip, he migrated to Canada where he intended to open a museum of dissected birds. When these plans failed, Gosse returned to England to become a teacher and he began to write books on zoology and marine life. His books’ popularity led him to still more travel – including a trip to the Bahamas funded by a wealthy collector of shells and snails – and this would finally provide the impetus for his deep love for the sea and its creatures.
As Gosse grew to be an authority among the English naturalists of his day, especially as regards marine and coastal fauna, he also became a Christian and joined a strict sect called the Plymouth Brethren Movement. His strong convictions (among them, a certainty that Jesus Christ would return to Earth during his own lifetime) were reflected in all of his later works.
But among all these books, The Aquarium was to be the most successful. Written a year after establishing the first public aquarium at the London Zoo, the book described its author’s observations of the biology of the coasts and instructed readers on establishing their own home oceans. The feat, to Gosse, was much more intelligent than the use of the cumbersome and complicated equipment then used for making underwater observations.
Beyond Gosse’s detailed practical advice, his book also had a spiritual side. Gosse advises that the building of a personal aquarium represents not merely a difficult task, but also a spiritual exercise which requires a deep respect for nature, among the most powerful examples of divinity and its many attributes. The creation of a small personal ocean, in Gosse’s view, brings us closer to God. Gosse found in the sea humanity’s past, an era before the fall of humankind. He even came to compare a coral reef to the sacred city of Jerusalem.
For the vibrant illustrations within The Aquarium (which may well echo in beauty those of Ernst Haeckel), the book that was also a great commercial success. Gosse portrayed underwater life as a paradise of calm, color, and beauty, inhabited by sealife and plants of all kinds. (Some experts have claimed that much of the graphic work attributed to Gosse was actually done by his wife, Emily.) But for this naturalist, an aquarium was a living museum, a curious inversion of Noah’s Ark which shared a spirit with that of a zoo, endowed nonetheless with a strong taste for the miniature.
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