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Issue: September 2007

TFH Turns 55!

Author: David E. Boruchowitz

Photographer: TFH Archives
TFH celebrates 55 years of informing and entertaining the aquarium hobby with the most accurate, engaging, and up-to-date information available.

For the next few pages I am going to take off my Editor’s hat and speak as a lifetime hobbyist and lifetime reader of this magazine. That division may be more imagined than real, as reading TFH certainly led in part to my coming to work for the magazine, as did my being an aquarist, but I’ll try. The last 55 years have seen a lot of changes in the world: in technology, in political boundaries, in transportation, in the economy, in the hobby, in Tropical Fish Hobbyist—and in me!

Setting the Stage

The year the first issue was printed was the year that Hemmingway published The Old Man and the Sea and Elizabeth II became queen. In 1952 $100 was worth—calculated by the gross domestic product per capita according to—about $1800 in modern buying power. Clarence Birdseye sold his first package of frozen peas. All but a couple African nations were under European colonial rule. There were no interstate highways.

You’d have to wait a year before cigarette smoking was first linked to lung cancer and Watson and Crick figured out the helical structure of DNA. Two years would pass before Dow Chemical would introduce Styrofoam® to the United States market, and there were no plastic bags. It would still be four years before the first transatlantic phone cable began service, five years before Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched into orbit. Six years later would bring the first jet passenger service between the United States and Europe. The Berlin Wall would not appear for nine years, and a full decade would pass before the Cuban Missile Crisis took place. Of special interest to aquarists, Lake Victoria would not be stocked with Lates niloticus for several more years.

And yet the hobby was strong. Many species of tropical fish were imported in metal cans on cargo steamships and occasionally even on propeller-driven cargo planes. Aquarists were breeding many species, and there were commercial fish farms in Germany and in Florida. “African cichlid” meant a krib. The Brooklyn Aquarium Society, the oldest and largest aquarium club in the country, was already 41 years old. Mom and Pop petshops were everywhere, and there was a tropical fish section in every five-and-dime store.

Aquaria had metal frames, the glass installed in a black tar compound. Aquarium reflectors used tubular incandescent bulbs. Most hobbyists had tanks of 5 gallons or less, and ones who stuck with the hobby would often move up to a 10-gallon aquarium. A 20- or 30-gallon tank was considered immense. The marine hobby was in its infancy.

Filters, when present, were air driven and used spun glass wool and bone charcoal as media. Fish came home from the store in paper deli containers like the ones used for Chinese take-out today, and they were kept in tanks full of amber water, with a thick layer of mulm on the bottom. Live foods were prevalent, many hobbyists made their own fish food, and flake food was unheard of. All heaters were hang-on, and air pumps were piston pumps with greasy leather diaphragms that needed frequent adjustment; inline filters were employed to minimize the lubricating oil that entered the aquarium. The alternative was a vibrator pump that produced more noise than air.

A Half Century Whizzes By

Fast forward from the middle of the Twentieth Century to the waning first decade of the Twenty-First. Baby Boomers like me are now grandparents. Small stores carrying tropical fish are few and far between. Hundreds of species of fish unknown in 1952 are readily available, but many of the staple favorites are still the same. Fish farms are found not only in Europe and in Florida, but also throughout Southeast Asia, and the economy of the country of Singapore is heavily based on the production of fish for the aquarium trade. Marine fish and invertebrates are regularly bred, both by hobbyists and commercial concerns. “African cichlid” usually means one of a thousand species from the Rift Lakes. The Brooklyn Aquarium Society, still the oldest and largest aquarium club in the country, is a venerable 96 years old! (Mazel tov, BAS!) General and specialty clubs are everywhere, and there are many national and international societies.

The introduction of Lates niloticus into Lake Victoria stands as one of the most destructive ecological mistakes our species has committed, right up there with rabbits in Australia and kudzu vine in the American Southeast. Hobbyists watched as hundreds of species went extinct, helpless to do anything other than scramble to create captive populations wherever possible. Aquaria are frameless, made of glass bonded with silicone adhesive developed in the Space Program, or of acrylic panels with chemically welded seams. Aquarium lighting comprises a huge variety of technologies, with high-end fixtures providing an equivalent to tropical sunshine. Many hobbyists have aquaria of 100 gallons or more—sometimes much more—in their homes. Filtration and filter media are equally high tech, including fluidized bed sand filters and complex protein skimmers. Fish are transported from all over the globe in plastic bags filled with oxygen, or in breather bags that can maintain fish for a week or more.

Knowledge of water chemistry has progressed, and fish are now kept thriving in clean water with no organic buildup. Many aquarists today never use any live food, even for rearing fry, and there are dozens of types of prepared foods available in an amazing variety of formulations. Completely submersible heaters are pretty much the standard, and piston pumps have given way to an array of vibrator models, some of which produce truly astounding amounts of air under considerable pressure with a minimum of noise.

The hobby is still strong, even stronger in many ways. We have at our easy disposal more information technology than mid-Twentieth-Century CIA agents did. After all, when TFH debuted, most American homes did not have a television, and the handful of available stations only broadcast a few hours per day in black and white. Today we have a recently unimaginable variety of media, including the Internet. All this technology serves to broaden an aquarist’s experiences, allowing him or her to interact with millions of hobbyists around the world in real time and to access enormous aquaristic data stores.

Tropical Fish Hobbyist

Through all the changes, this magazine has persisted as the premier source for aquaristic data. It has undergone much change itself, both gradual and punctuated, evolving from a pulp-sized black-and-white booklet to the large-format full-color book you are holding in your hands now. It has seen many editors and several publishers. As the hobby grew and developed, so did the magazine, and the history of this magazine is inextricably tied to the history of this hobby.

Today, T.F.H. Publications, Inc. is a subsidiary of Central Garden and Pet, one of the world’s largest and most respected pet-oriented businesses. TFH Magazine has consistently been at the front of the growth of the hobby, printing articles and photos of the newest and best, taking stands for the benefit of aquarists, and racking up a great number of firsts—among them first descriptions of fish, first discussions of new technology, and first uses of various printing advancements.

TFH has showcased the most important authors, photographers, and hobbyists over the years. The magazine has always been international, but today it is truly a worldwide publication. Its contributors span the globe, and even its American authors often cover events and locales in faraway lands. Sometimes the significance of such material is not known until many years later, a case in point being the articles about Lee Chin Eng’s natural marine aquaria that spurred the development of modern reef technology.

This publication’s scope is similarly all encompassing. Articles on hatching brine shrimp share pages with an account of keeping great white sharks in captivity. Questions from absolute beginners are answered right along with specific, detailed inquiries on advanced aquarist topics. You can find material about freshwater, brackish, and marine fishes, invertebrates, and plants, about feeding and breeding, about physiology, taxonomy, and chemistry. There are regularly travelogues to tropical habitats, as well as articles on collecting. Focus shifts from particular species to general husbandry, from scientific principles to hobbyists themselves, from hobby history to forecasts of the future. The magazine serves as a forum for discussing the latest controversies, debugging confusing taxonomies, and promoting aquarium societies, tank placement programs, and other projects that work to ensure the viability of our hobby well into the Twenty-First Century.

Yours Truly

I was almost two when TFH debuted, and it was for my second birthday that I received my first fish. I do not remember a time when I did not read TFH, and from the early issues that are recognizable to me, I can only assume that my parents read me the magazine before I could read it on my own. I have gotten the magazine for almost as long as it has been available, and my knowledge about the hobby has for the most part come from it. Since there is no better way to learn than to teach, my writing articles—and later editorials—for TFH has kept me up to speed on the latest developments.

I like to think I have helped TFH along as well, and this is where the distinction between David the hobbyist and magazine reader and David the editor and author breaks down. But it does explain my passion for this publication. It has been my aquaristic home all my life, but in recent years it has also looked to me for leadership. I bring a lot more than my editorial skills and knowledge to the job—I also bring a lifetime of experience with the hobby and a lifetime of love for the magazine.

The Future

Prediction, especially about technological change, is risky business. I remember watching on television in the 1950s as Walter Cronkite test drove a prototype turbo car—a jet-powered automobile certain to soon become the car of the future. When the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared, its depiction of a regularly scheduled Pan Am passenger flight to the Moon did not raise an eyebrow, it was so obvious and expected. But when the year 2001 came around, not only did we not have any habitats on the Moon or flights to them, the airline icon of the Twentieth Century was defunct. Another taken-for-granted near-future technology in the movie was the video phone, something which—although the technology for it has been available for quite some time—has yet to catch on. And in his 1985 novel Contact,Carl Sagan foresaw a time soon to come when cable television would further shrink the globe, bringing stations from around the world to viewers completely without commercials. Right.

On the other hand, not that long ago, the idea of a 250-gallon home aquarium lit with high intensity discharge lamps, filtered by rocks, and stocked with coral reef invertebrates would have been as preposterous as a portable telephone the size of a business card that takes pictures and plays music—yet both are simply part of today’s technology. All this leaves me reluctant to speculate on the innovations you will see as this magazine continues its charted course, guiding the aquarium hobby through its second half-century and into the future, but its history makes that unnecessary.

This magazine has always been cutting edge. It has grown and changed with the hobby. Its history reflects that of the aquarium hobby. So, whatever the future holds for the hobby, that’s what you will find in these pages. Whatever advances in print technology lay around the corner, those will also be found in this publication. Whoever the movers and shakers will be in the hobby, they are the people who will be featured here. Our central strength—that it is fellow fish people who put out this magazine—will continue to ensure that Tropical Fish Hobbyist will address the interests, needs, and concerns of aquarists worldwide.

The milestone anniversary we are celebrating indicates that we’re over the hump—it’s downhill now to our 100th. Join us for the ride, but hang on! Who knows what wonders we are going to experience!

See the full article on TFH Digital

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