Although the use of elevated water storage tanks has existed since ancient times in various forms, the modern use of water towers for pressurized public water systems developed during the mid-19th century, as steam-pumping became more common, and better pipes that could handle higher pressures were developed. In the United Kingdom, standpipes consisted of tall, exposed, n-shaped pipes, used for pressure relief and to provide a fixed elevation for steam-driven pumping engines which tended to produce a pulsing flow, while the pressurized water distribution system required constant pressure. Standpipes also provided a convenient fixed location to measure flow rates. Designers typically enclosed the riser pipes in decorative masonry or wooden structures. By the late 19th-Century, standpipes grew to include storage tanks to meet the ever-increasing demands of growing cities.
Many early water towers are now considered historically significant and have been included in various heritage listings around the world. Some are converted to apartments or exclusive penthouses. In certain areas, such as New York City in the United States, smaller water towers are constructed for individual buildings. In California and some other states, domestic water towers enclosed by siding (tankhouses) were once built (1850s–1930s) to supply individual homes; windmills pumped water from hand-dug wells up into the tank in New York.
Water towers were used to supply water stops for steam locomotives on railroad lines. Early steam locomotives required water stops every 7 to 10 miles (11 to 16 km).