Pipelines 101: The history of pipelines and how they are used in modern living

Date Posted

src history of pipelines showing four pipelines against sunset sky

This blog post is the first installment in a three-part series about the history of pipelines, their importance in delivering valuable municipal and industrial commodities, and the role they’ve played in developing Canadian industry. We’ll end the series with a closer look at pipeline safety. 

When people think of pipelines, they often associate them with the oil and gas industry. But pipelines have a broader use than just for this industry, and the technology is not new. In fact, there is a long history of societies using pipelines to provide transportation to fill a variety of important needs.

Early references to pipelines span a large part of the globe: clay sewer pipes used by Babylonian settlements in 4,000 BC; Greek and Roman installations for water supply, sewer and storm sewer systems; Mayan civilizations with indoor plumbing using pressurized water; and Han Dynasty installations of stoneware pipelines supplying water to the Imperial Palaces in China in 189 AD.

It is interesting how many of these pipeline applications were developed independently by different cultures with large geographical distances between them.

Pipelines and Human Health

Pipelines have played a vital role in human health. Despite the early applications described above, pipelines were not commonly used in the Middle Ages in Europe. In their absence, it was common to let waste drain into the streets. Water supplies from rivers and community wells were frequently contaminated with disease and contributed to outbreaks of many waterborne diseases.

In the 1800s, industrial sewer systems were developed in major centres. These pipelines were critical to improving human health and reducing infant mortality.  Water distribution pipeline systems have allowed communities to develop in regions that might have otherwise failed to thrive. In Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, for example, drinking water is piped into the city from the North Saskatchewan River.

illustration of home heating and water pipelines

Pipelines in the Home

While it may not be something you think of regularly, if you are a homeowner, you are also a pipeline owner.

The municipality owns the main water supply and sewer takeaway pipelines, but as a homeowner, you own the lines from the property boundary to your house. And, if you trace the lines even further, you even have pipelines in your house, leading to and from your bathrooms, kitchen and laundry room.

These modern conveniences are so commonplace that we sometimes forget how vital pipeline distribution systems are to modern living, both for convenience and for human health.

Without pipelines, we would spend large amounts of time hauling water to and from waterways and then boiling that water before we could drink it.

Waste handling on the other end would be even more inconvenient for each property owner to manage. Without these systems, it is not hard to imagine how people in the Middle Ages resorted to shouting “Gardyloo” and dumping their chamber pots out the window onto the street below.

Pipelines for Heat and Comfort

Another vital supply to many homes in Canada is natural gas, which is used to heat 56 per cent of homes in Canada and the U.S. During the winter months, this heat source is vital to our survival.

There was a time when natural gas was not available and instead, people burned wood or coal to heat their homes. In major centres, these sources of heat produced copious amounts of smoke that impacted weather patterns and produced smog clouds, reduced visibility and created respiratory health issues.

The 1952 London smog disaster, which claimed an estimated 12,000 lives, proved a turning point that led to the passing of the British Clean Air Act of 1956, a milestone in environmental legislation. The reliable, clean-burning natural gas fuel that now heats our homes and household water for laundry, cleaning and bathing also comes to our homes via a pipeline.

The importance of pipeline development

Pipelines that deliver clean drinking water, clean-burning fuel to heat our homes, and take away liquid wastes for safe treatment and handling are just some of the uses of pipelines in our world. Without these systems and their convenient delivery to our homes, we would not enjoy the same level of health, quality of life and harmonious relationship with our neighbours.

It would truly be a different world without pipelines.


SRC’s Pipe Flow Technology Centre™ is a world leader in multi-phase pipeline transportation technology. The facility conducts projects in multi-phase flow and process testing, as well as demonstration and pipeline design and development for the heavy oil, oil sands and mineral industries. 

In addition, SRC and Paterson and Cooke offer a comprehensive course in slurry pipeline design for people working in slurry transportation.