Gearing Up Was No Minor Challenge for our Marine Aquarium Forebears

Think you’ve got equipment woes? Imagine what it would have been like trying to equip a marine system back at the dawn of marine fishkeeping! Well, hobby pioneer Paul “Paul B” Baldassano doesn’t have to imagine that because he was there to witness it. (Actually, he may have been there when our first human ancestor slithered out of the primordial ooze—we’re looking into it.)

Equipment limitations

Early tanks had other concerns besides parasites, and the majority of those concerns were due to the aquarium hardware at the time. As I said, tanks had metal corners up until the early 60s, which was when all-glass tanks were sold. That led the way for larger tanks to be manufactured.

My first all-glass tank was a 40-gallon, which was considered large then. But the filters, lights, heaters, and air and water pumps were still all made for freshwater aquariums. All tanks used undergravel (UG) filters, and the smaller tanks used airstones and an air pump to operate the UG filter. Early air pumps were operated with a motor and a leather piston that had to be oiled almost every week. Oil would sometimes get into the water, which made a realistic looking Exxon oil slick, but worse than that, the pumps would overheat or rust. Later air pumps were vibrator types, which were much cheaper but not as powerful. No water pumps were submersible, and they were all built out of metal. Iron to be exact. Do you have any idea what happens when you spill salt water on an iron pump? Can you say rust?

In time, powerheads replaced airstones on undergravel filter tubes. Those early powerheads were made of aluminum and plastic but were not yet submersible (at least, you should not submerge them on purpose—sometimes they fell into the water). Remember, GFCIs would not be invented for 20 more years, so a powerhead dropped in the water would elicit a small explosion, a big spark, smoke, and the lights in the house going off as the circuit breaker tripped. Even if you did not drop it in the water, the salt creep would allow electricity to flow into the tank, so we had to unplug the thing before we put our hands in the water. It was easy to remember because the first time you forgot to do that, you would be thrown across the room, and if you were lucky, you didn’t break off the front glass of the tank as you flew. Light housings were also aluminum, and they had a little push button on the side. We quickly learned to push that button with a stick for the same reason I explained with the powerheads.

All filters were hang-on-back (HOB) types, and all tanks had filters because we didn’t have bacteria in our tanks to handle any wastes. Between the oil slicks from the water pumps, the electricity from the powerheads, and the Clorox we used to clean the coral skeletons, any bacteria in their right mind grew legs and ran away as fast as they could. HOB filters were filled with fiberglass fiber that was later replaced with nylon floss because the fiberglass is actually glass fibers and would get into your skin, causing cancer and the heartbreak of psoriasis.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Leslie Melling says

    Being at the age approaching my 66th birthday, I well remember all the issues Paul talks about. Take lighting for instance, it would be 2 tubes after incandescent bulbs, at big step forward and only if you were lucky, just normal everyday warm household colour then somebody invented Growlux then a tube called Northlight a daylight tube none of which were designed for aquarists. We moved on to mercury vapour lamps and finally HQI but even HQI had a low colour temp at 4300k. Progress was painfully slow but it was fun, fun in that we did lots of DIY and I still do. Nothing like making something yourself at a fraction of the pricey and often better than you can buy. Still I digress, So now we have all manner of very expensive equipment to aid and annoy the hell out of us. back in the day less was more, No interweb then just the odd fishkeeping mag with the odd article on a marine related subject. Oh! How things have changed mostly for the better of course.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Thanks so much for sharing these insights, Leslie. I sometimes wonder how many of us younger guys and gals (47 is still young, right?) would even be in the hobby today if we had to improvise and make do like you and Paul did.

    • "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich says

      It’s fascinating to see the changes the hobby/industry have gone through over the years, Leslie. It will be interesting to see where we are in a decade or two.

      • Leslie Melling says

        That is so true Chris. IMO ATS’s will be the principle form of filtration and we will see even better lights no doubt. Foods are another area and who knows what else. We will just have to wait and see I guess.

  2. I am just a few months older then you, But ages older than those two Kids here. I think reefing was so much more fun in those days. Everything was new. Every time I went into a store I saw something new and neither me nor the store owner know what the creature was, what it ate, how to care for it or anything else. I also didn’t know anyone with a salt tank as we were far and few between. Luckily for me I was a SCUBA diver before the hobby started so I sometimes had the opportunity to learn about the fish first hand. Now the thrill is gone. We have kept multiple animals of everything imported and very rarely see something we have not had a few times. My joy now is watching the fish spawn and almost all of them do. I rarely have any problems because I keep my fish immune from just about everything (although many people think I am lucky) If I was lucky Christie Brinkley would be knocking at my door right about now, but it is awfully quiet in here. I also love building things for the tank. I am now working on an algae scrubber, probably prototype number 87 as I am never satisfied with the finished product and always try to improve.
    Thank you for responding Leslie. Have a great day and relax. At our age, we deserve it.

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