One of the coolest things about our hobby is the amazing progression over the years in both the state of the art and the technology that we embrace. Improvements that have enabled us to do things previously thought incredibly difficult or even, impossible, unfold daily here on Reef Builders and elsewhere. And the progression seems to be accelerating constantly. What an amazing time to be a hobbyist!
It’s interesting, however, to watch some hobbyist’ reactions to new products, techniques, etc. After reading about some new product or evolved technique, you’ll often see comments like “That’s nothing new, really. ___________ had something like that a few years ago.” or “All that guy did was add______. It’s not really new.”
Comments and attitudes like this seem to overlook a few simple facts, so let’s look at this a bit closer. Did you ever think about how the technology and practices we routinely utilize in the hobby came into being? Much of it is built upon achievements and developments from the past. I mean, it all started with a goldfish bowl, right? Sure, there are brand new technologies that trickle into the hobby all the time, yet many of the hottest new products and techniques of today arose as a result of someone looking at something that was already in existence and saying, “I can do better than that.” It’s the “better mousetrap” theory. Things evolve over time, often borrowing from existing technology or technique.
One need not look to far back into the hobby’s past to see a prime example of this evolution: Remember the trickle filter? Derived from sewage treatment technology, this venerable invention powered the reef systems of the mid eighties, placing the promise of the “miniature reef” into the grasp of almost every marine hobbyist. George Smit’s landmark series of articles in FAMA magazine in 1986, extolling this technology, helped launch the modern reef craze as we know it. By 1988, it seemed like the marine sector of the hobby exploded in popularity, with dozens of new filter manufacturers arriving on the scene almost monthly.
As the decade wore on, however, hobbyists and manufacturers saw fit to improve the trickle filters that were available at the time, creating new models with greater media capacity, more baffles to break up flow, and compartments to hold equipment like skimmers and reactors. Little improvements that provided increased performance. Nothing revolutionary, mind you- just “tweaks”.
Eventually, it was determined that trickle filters were great at removing ammonia and nitrite, yet tended to allow nitrate to accumulate rapidly. In the nineties, many embraced the belief that accumulating nitrate could be a potential detriment to coral growth and long-term fish health, and almost overnight,“conventional” trickle filtration began to fall out of favor. Hobbyists everywhere began yanking the plastic filter media (bioballs, etc.) from their trickle filters.
The “filter” became the “sump”, and was primarily the nexus for water treatment (mechanical and chemical) for the aquarium. With no use for biological “towers”, within this new school of thought, this feature began to disappear from filters. Kalkwasser dosing was utilized to increase alkalinity and calcium and to precipitate phosphates… The “Berlin Method” of reef keeping had arrived, and a variation of this method has been the state of the art ever since. Once again, existing technology had “morphed” to accommodate the prevailing school of thought. The state of the art evolved, and so did the equipment. An idea from the past improved upon to accommodate the needs of the present.
In my opinion, we are often too quick to chide such evolutionary steps as “copying” or “ripping off” existing ideas, when in reality, they are simply improving and building upon what was already there. This is the necessary progression of things in many cases. We didn’t make the leap from undergravel filters to high-capacity sumps and hyper efficient protein skimmers, or from N.O. fluorescent to LED lighting overnight. Hobbyists, manufacturers, and product designers looked at the prevailing technology of the day, assessed the needs of the hobby, and attempted to improve upon these existing technologies. Remember, many of these improvements are done to gain a market advantage over one’s competitors. For example, if I make an easier to maintain protein skimmer, hobbyists are more likely to purchase my product. Further refinements take place all the time. This is how the hobby progresses.
It’s not just limited to the hobby, of course. Think about everyday technologies, such as telephones. When the cord on the phone was cut, it changed the way we communicate. Improvements in technology revolutionized the way we could quickly interact with others and gave us the “smart phones” that many of us now carry in our pockets. These “smart phones” allow us to talk, write, text, send photos, video and now video conference effortlessly and instantaneously with others, creating true global communication once though impossible.
Need more proof that change and progression in our hobby are often the result of evolution? Look no further than my beloved topic of aquascaping! Those of you familiar with my rants know that I am no lover of the ever pervasive “wall of rock”, which is essentially a large quantity of live rock, more or less stacked end-to-end in the aquarium, it’s been utilized as the “default” aquascaping configuration since the beginning of the reef aquarium hobby. In my opinion, it’s outdated, uninspired, and essentially unnecessary. I feel so strongly about this because, among other reasons, I understand its history.
Back in the 80’s, “live rock” was a breakthrough in aquarium management. Biological “filtration” and diversity of life were considered revolutionary concepts in aquaria. It was widely believed that you needed “x” number of pound per gallon of aquarium capacity to achieve these results, so when we set up our tanks, we dutifully dumped tons (literally, in some cases) of rock into them! Even though water capacity, swimming area, and flow were often compromised with this configuration, it was a widely held that the benefits were far greater than any potential downside.
Over the years, however, it was discovered that we really don’t need all that rock for biological filtration, and that you could utilize other techniques (use of refugia, protein skimming, macroalgae) to help efficiently process nutrients in our aquaria. Hobbyists began to experiment by creating systems with less rock. With the better understanding of biological processes and their affect on husbandry that we developed over the years, water volume and movement have taken on greater significance, and hobbyists began to utilize far less rock in their aquascapes, unless their design called for it. The “rock wall” was no longer considered the “only way” to run a reef system, and the concept of reef aquascaping has evolved dramatically, experiencing a real renaissance of sorts.
Inspiration is an “open source”, and innovation is for anyone to embrace. It can come from anywhere, at any time. Some aquarium technologies, such as lighting, borrow from other industries or fields of endeavor, whereas others, such as the development of new food products, arise out of knowledge and experience gained within the fields of marine science and aquaculture-and good old hobbyist experience as well. Ideas, technologies, and technique “cross-pollinate” between fields, and the changes benefit us all.
There is no great “hobby hegemony” that seeks to keep ideas and progression in the hands of some chosen few. These days, anyone with an idea and determination can forge a new path for the hobby. Think about this for a while: As a Reef Builders reader, you’re actually a participant in the progression in the hobby. You’ve got a front row seat to the revolution, and your comments and questions do not go unnoticed by manufacturers, fellow hobbyists, and industry people.
However, the next time you might be tempted to criticize someone’s new hobby idea or product because it seemingly ”borrows” from something already in existence, realize that you’re merely seeing the evolution of the hobby at its flash point. Don’t just chide the development because part of it seems derived from something familiar. Embrace it, enjoy it, and utilize it…. improve it.
Till next time…