In 1827 a British physician, Nathaniel Ward, while studying cocoons under glass with soil, serendipitously discovered that ferns and other plants sprouted and grew vigorously under glass.  Outside of the glass in the industrially polluted London air, however, these plants could not survive.  Ward realized that he had discovered a way to grow plants sensitive to environmental pollutants.  After some trials with small glass jars he found the right combinations of light, air, humidity and moisture to support various plants.  He then developed “closed-system” cases large enough for houseplants. These became known as Wardian cases.  With increased popularity, the cases became very ornate and elaborate, often mimicking architectural styles.  In commerce it was found that tea plants, rubber plants and exotic plants, when inside the cases, could be shipped to other parts of the world. This discovery resulted in the Indian tea and rubber industries.

In the 1970’s environmental awareness, as exemplified by Earth Day, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, “flower children,” and the hippie back-to-nature movements, brought a renewed interest in Wardian cases leading to the modern terrarium.  The 1800’s aquarium-sized and bottle-sized Wardian cases represented some of the first “closed” systems, although Wardian-case ecosystems were not generally hermetically sealed and were constructed principally for their attractiveness. (see Arthurs 1975; Michie 2004)

Warington (1851) was perhaps the first to describe a sealed “balanced aquatic microecosystem” type microsphere. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that more serious work began on microcosms.  Much of this work, however, still dealt with microcosms of differing degrees of closure for various experiments (Odum and Hoskin 1957; Myers 1958; Beyers 1962a 1962b; Golueke and Oswald 1963, and various others).

Investigations of materially sealed ecosystem microcosms, i.e. the truly-closed microbiospheres, smaller than a human, hermetically-sealed biological systems, were started and pursued simultaneously and independently in both the USA (Folsome and Hanson 1986) and in Russia (USSR) (Kovrov 1992).  Some of the sealed microbiospheres created in the 1970s are still alive, including unpublished systems created in 1973 by Biel and by Yensen (per. obs.).
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Literature Cited

Arthurs K 1975 Terrariums and Miniature Gardens // Lane Magazine and Book, Menlo Park, California, USA: 88 p.

Beyers RJ 1962a The Metabolism of Twelve Microecosystems // PhD Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin

Beyers RJ 1962b Relationship between temperature and the metabolism of experimental ecosystems // Science 136: 980-982

Folsome C, Hanson JA 1986 The emergence of materially-closed-ecosystem ecology // Ecosystem Theory and Application, N. Polunin, (Ed.), John Wiley, New York: 269-288

Golueke CG, Oswald WJ 1964 Role of plants in closed systems // Annual Review of Plant Physiology 15: 387-407

Kovrov BG 1992 Manmade microecosystems with closed material cycle as models of the biosphere // Biophysics of the Cell Populations and Superorganismic Systems, “Nauka” Press [in Russian], Novosibirsk: 62-70

Kovrov BG, Fishtein GN 1980 Microecosystems and experience of their using for studies of protists in a community of microscioical organisms // Zhurnal Obshchei Biologii (Journal of General Biology) [in Russian] 46(3): 336-344

Maguire BJ 1980 Some patterns in post-closure ecosystem dynamics (failure) // Microcosms in Ecological Research, J.P. Giesy Jr. (Ed.) / DOE Symposium Series 52. US Department of Energy, Washington D.C.: 319-332

Michie J 2004 History // Closed Ecological Systems, an Introduction, N.P. Yensen (Ed.); unpublished ms: 105 p.

Myers J 1958 Study of a photosynthetic gas exchanger as a method of providing for the respiratory requirements of the human in a sealed cabin // Publication of Air University School of Aviation Medicine, United States Air Force, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas: 58-117

Odum HT, Hoskin CM 1957 Metabolism of a Stream Microcosm // Published by the Institute of Marine Science, Texas 4: 116-133

Warington R 1851 Notice of observation on the adjustment of the relations between animal and vegetable kingdoms // Quaternary L. Chemical Society: 3

Yensen NP, Biel KY 2005 The concept of criticality and some principles for sustainability in closed biological systems, biospheres, and their classification // Complex Systems under Extreme Conditions, RG Khlebopros and VG Soukhovolsky (Eds.), Krasnoyarsk, Russia: 134-158
Algal and microorganism-containing microbiospheres were studied by Kovrov and Fishtein (1980) and Folsome and Hanson (1986).  Also, Bassett Maguire’s (1980) experimental studies of macroscopic organism in one-liter microsphere systems produced some of our most rudimentary knowledge of closed systems.  In 1985, based on the NASA Folsome-Hansen flask, N. Yensen, D. Harmony and L. Acker developed the synthetic Ecosphere® microcosm by combining species that would not normally occur together in nature into glass spheres to produce a sustainable small shrimp ecosystem of which over 100,000 have been produced and sold for up to $250 USD (see the pictures).
The first closed ecosystems were made as curiosities for their aesthetic qualities, but, through the transport of important commercial plants, had a significant impact on civilization.  Even today, most closed systems are still constructed by individuals and scientists mostly out of curiosity and as aesthetic objects.  It now appears that a myriad of formats are possible, in spite of the former scientific paradigm that, “a sustainable closed ecosystem smaller than planet Earth’s Biosphere was not possible".
Today, there are a number of closed system types to choose from when planning an experiment. Closed living systems in this classification may be defined according to their closure, size and shape (Yensen and Biel 2005).