It was in 1986 that I first heard of an intelligent pig.
I was involved with my colleague and friend Norman Doodson in the renegotiation of a gas sale agreement with British Gas. This involved interminable meetings over many days, with a half-hour break for a sandwich lunch.
Over lunch one day, a pipeline engineer from British Gas told us about the latest developments in pig technology, in which British Gas was a world leader.
Originally a pig was an inert plug used to clean oil and gas pipelines, which clog up over time. The pig is introduced into the pipeline, where it is carried along by the flow and scours the walls of the pipe as it goes.
This is not a simple or risk-free operation. To get the pig into the line requires a pig-launcher. To recover it at the other end requires a pig-trap. And it is always possible for a pig to get lost, becoming stuck somewhere in the line. At worst this may block the pipeline completely, shutting off the flow of production and requiring the line to be cut open to recover the pig – if you know where it is.
The breakthrough was to give the pig an electronic brain, so that it knows exactly where it is. Today’s pigs can survey the pipeline as they go and even stop to repair the walls. These are of course complex and expensive devices.
To distinguish these sophisticated pigs from their inert cousins, they are referred to as intelligent pigs. Inert pigs became known as unintelligent pigs, or dumb pigs.
The pipeline engineer told us proudly that he was soon to go to Saudi Arabia to demonstrate the technology to Saudi Aramco, which in terms of reserves and production is the world’s largest oil company.
Norman and I share a sense of humour. As the engineer’s story unfolded we avoided eye contact and tried to keep a straight face. But it was hopeless, and when we heard about the visit to Aramco we lost control completely. I put it down to the surreal nature of the conversation, and the stress of a tedious and difficult negotiation.
The pipeline engineer was mystified, and asked what we found so funny. Norman recovered sufficiently to retrieve the situation:
“You must be the first man in history to go to Arabia to sell a pig!”