Prior to the widespread use of herbicides, cultural controls, such as altering soil pH, salinity, or fertility levels, were used to control weeds. Mechanical control (including tillage) was also (and still is) used to control weeds.
Although research into herbicides began in the early 20th century, the first major breakthrough was the result of research conducted in both the UK and the US during the Second World War into the potential use of herbicides in war. The first modern herbicide, 2,4-D, was first discovered and synthesized by
W. G. Templeman at Imperial Chemical Industries. In 1940, he showed that "Growth substances applied appropriately would kill certain broad-leaved weeds in cereals without harming the crops." By 1941, his team succeeded in synthesizing the chemical. In the same year, Pokorny in the US achieved this as well.
Independently, a team under Juda Hirsch Quastel, working at the Rothamsted Experimental Station made the same discovery. Quastel was tasked by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to discover methods for improving crop yield. By analyzing soil as a dynamic system, rather than an inert substance, he was able to apply techniques such as perfusion. Quastel was able to quantify the influence of various plant hormones, inhibitors and other chemicals on the activity of microorganisms in the soil and assess their direct impact on plant growth. While the full work of the unit remained secret, certain discoveries were developed for commercial use after the war, including the 2,4-D compound.
When 2,4-D was commercially released in 1946, it triggered a worldwide revolution in agricultural output and became the first successful selective herbicide. It allowed for greatly enhanced weed control in wheat, maize (corn), rice, and similar cereal grass crops, because it kills dicots (broadleaf plants), but not most monocots (grasses). The low cost of 2,4-D has led to continued usage today, and it remains one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world. Like other acid herbicides, current formulations use either an amine salt (often trimethylamine) or one of many esters of the parent compound. These are easier to handle than the acid.
The triazine family of herbicides, which includes atrazine, were introduced in the 1950s; they have the current distinction of being the herbicide family of greatest concern regarding groundwater contamination. Atrazine does not break down readily (within a few weeks) after being applied to soils of above neutral pH. Under alkaline soil conditions, atrazine may be carried into the soil profile as far as the water table by soil water following rainfall causing the aforementioned contamination. Atrazine is thus said to have "carryover", a generally undesirable property for herbicides.
Glyphosate (Roundup) was introduced in 1974 for nonselective weed control. Following the development of glyphosate-resistant crop plants, it is now used very extensively for selective weed control in growing crops. The pairing of the herbicide with the resistant seed contributed to the consolidation of the seed and chemistry industry in the late 1990s.
Many modern herbicides used in agriculture and gardening are specifically formulated to decompose within a short period after application. This is desirable, as it allows crops and plants to be planted afterwards, which could otherwise be affected by the herbicide. However, herbicides with low residual activity (i.e., that decompose quickly) often do not provide season-long weed control and do not ensure that weed roots are killed beneath construction and paving (and cannot emerge destructively in years to come), therefore there remains a role for weedkiller with high levels of persistence in the soil.