In 1369, the Hongwu Emperor of China established a porcelain company that produced large porcelain tubs for maintaining goldfish; over time, people produced tubs that approached the shape of modern fish bowls. Leonhard Baldner, who wrote Vogel-, Fisch- und Tierbuch (Bird, Fish, and Animal Book) in 1666, maintained weather loaches and newts. It is sometimes held that the aquarium was invented by the Romans, who are said to have kept sea barbels in marble-and-glass tanks, but this is unlikely to be true.
Aquaria became more widely popular as houses had an electricity supply after World War I. Electricity allowed artificial lighting, as well as aeration, filtration, and heating of the water. Initially, amateur aquarists kept native fish (with the exception of goldfish); the availability of exotic species from overseas further increased the popularity of the aquarium. Jugs made from a variety of materials were used to import fish from overseas, with a bicycle foot pump for aeration. Plastic shipping bags were introduced in the 1950s, making it easier to ship fish. The eventual availability of air freight allowed fish to be successfully imported from distant regions. Popular publications started by Herbert R. Axelrod influenced many more hobbyists to start keeping fish. In the 1960s, metal frames made marine aquaria almost impossible due to corrosion, but the development of tar and silicone sealant allowed the first all-glass aquaria made by Martin Horowitz in Los Angeles, CA. The frames remained, however, though purely for aesthetic reasons.
The very first modern aquarium made of glass was developed in the 19th century by Robert Warrington. During the Victorian age, glass aquariums commonly had slate or steel bottoms, which allowed them to be heated underneath by an open-flame heat source. These aquariums had the glass panels attached with metal frames and sealed with putty. Metal-framed aquariums were still available until the mid-1960s, when the modern, silicone-sealed style replaced them. Acrylic aquariums first became available to the public in the 1970s. Laminated glass is sometimes used, which combines the advantages of both glass and acrylic.
Large aquaria might instead use stronger materials such as fiberglass-reinforced plastics. However, this material is not transparent. Reinforced concrete is used for aquaria where weight and space are not factors. Concrete must be coated with a waterproof layer to prevent the water from breaking down the concrete, as well as preventing contamination of the water by the concrete.
Another popular setup is the biotope aquarium. A biotope aquarium is a recreation of a specific natural environment. Some of the most popular biotopes are the freshwater habitats of the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers, the African rift lake environments of Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, and saltwater coral reefs of Australia, the Red Sea, and the Caribbean. The fish, plants, substrate, rocks, wood, coral, and any other component of the display should completely match that of the local natural environment. It can be a challenge to recreate such environments, and most "true" biotopes will only have a few (if not only one) species of fish and invertebrates.
Combined biological and mechanical aquarium filtration systems are common. These either convert ammonia to nitrate (removing nitrogen at the expense of aquatic plants), or to sometimes remove phosphate. Filter media can house microbes that mediate nitrification. Filtration systems are sometimes the most complex component of home aquaria.
Several nutrient cycles are important in the aquarium. Dissolved oxygen enters the system at the surface water-air interface. Similarly, carbon dioxide escapes the system into the air. The phosphate cycle is an important, although often overlooked, nutrient cycle. Sulfur, iron, and micronutrients also cycle through the system, entering as food and exiting as waste. Appropriate handling of the nitrogen cycle, along with supplying an adequately balanced food supply and considered biological loading, is enough to keep these other nutrient cycles in approximate equilibrium.
Home aquarists typically use tap water supplied through their local water supply network to fill their tanks. Straight tap water cannot be used in localities that pipe chlorinated water. In the past, it was possible to "condition" the water by simply letting the water stand for a day or two, which allows the chlorine time to dissipate. However, chloramine is now used more often and does not leave the water as readily. Water conditioners formulated to remove chlorine or chloramine are often all that is needed to make the water ready for aquarium use. Brackish or saltwater aquaria require the addition of a commercially available mixture of salts and other minerals.
In a fishless cycle, small amounts of ammonia are added to an unpopulated tank to feed the bacteria. During this process, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels are tested to monitor progress. The "silent" cycle is basically nothing more than densely stocking the aquarium with fast-growing aquatic plants and relying on them to consume the nitrogen, allowing the necessary bacterial populations time to develop. According to anecdotal reports, the plants can consume nitrogenous waste so efficiently that ammonia and nitrite level spikes seen in more traditional cycling methods are greatly reduced or disappear. "Slow growth" entails slowly increasing the population of fish over a period of 6 to 8 weeks, giving bacteria colonies time to grow and stabilize with the increase in fish waste. This method is usually done with a small starter population of hardier fish which can survive the ammonia and nitrite spikes, whether they are intended to be permanent residents or to be traded out later for the desired occupants.