By Don George, WJU #3911

The Circus, Paddlewheels, The Beatles, Madonna, Springsteen and Others

SOURCE: 2019-04 Circus Fanfare

“Bonds that tie? What is that?”, you ask.

It’s true… pop music, the great riverboats and the circus all share a common bond: the use of the Calliope.

CALLIOPE! The wonderful operonicon or steam car of the muses, as it appears in the gorgeous street pageant of the great European Zoological Association!

The iconic steam whistle instrument with its unique, slightly off-pitch notes makes its appearance in many pop music chart-busters. In 1993, Madonna’s Girlie Show tour used excerpts from Holiday for Calliope in the encore. Bruce Springsteen was Blinded by the Light and apparently, according to his lyrics, “the calliope crashed to the ground.” And the Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite used calliope music for the tune’s circus atmosphere.

While there are differing opinions on the proper pronunciation, circus troupes, circus music aficionados and those who play the instrument usually say KAL-ee-ohp, or shortened to just Cally. Others, self included, prefer ke-LY- e-pee like the Greek Muse of the same name.  It tends to be the former in a circus context and the latter relative to riverboats and other uses. Regardless of how you say it, the Calliope has an amazing and robust history, from its creation to its present-day use.

A Little History

U.S. Patent No. 13688 was issued on October 9, 1855 to Joshua C. Stoddard, commonly credited as the inventor of the Steam Calliope, “…for an instrument producing music by steam or compressed air through what are commonly known as whistles.”

From the original muse, to the advent of the 19th Century musical instrument, Calliope is a rich study of history. In Greek mythology, the muse Calliope presides over lyrical poetry, prose and song, her name attributed to the harmony of her voice. And so, too, the first steam organ (or steam piano) came into existence in the 1800s. Its loud and distinctive pitches produced through varying-sized metal tubes (later known as whistles) allowed for often out-of-tune chromatic melodies to be played.

The original aerophone named after the Greek Muse was created by the Reverend James Birkett of Ovinsham, England in June 1838, but was never patented. Birkett’s “steam organ” consisted of eight pipes covering a single octave and was attached to a locomotive from the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway Company. It was used at a railway grand opening.

Interestingly, Claim 2 of the Patent merely identifies a particular type of improved valve system, the puppet valve, resulting in the combining of the original instrument with this unique rotating studded barrel. His purpose in designing the innovative instrument was to call people to worship. It is not surprising that in Evangelical New England, a man named Joshua would have created such a mechanical horn section for the call to worship. Whilst Stoddard may be generally accepted as the “inventor”, in fact, he is not.

Stoddard’s instrument consisted of fifteen graduated metal tubes, all of different pitch attached in a row to the top of a steam boiler. His metal rotating barrel ran the length of the boiler and was equipped with pins like those in a music box. The pins were arranged to press the valves and allow the steam to enter the appropriate whistles in the precise sequence to play the desired melody. Much like the larger music boxes of the era, a separate roller was needed for each melody. Eventually, Stoddard attached wires to the valves and ran the opposing ends to a keyboard so that the instrument could be played like a piano. The first performance of the keyboard instrument was July 4, 1855 on Worcester Common in Massachusetts. Stoddard founded the American Steam Piano Company, but it failed within five years. Investors replaced Stoddard and under new management the instrument became highly popular and in demand.

Calliope on the Steamboat Natchez

The availability of steam to power Stoddard’s instrument severely limited its application, flexibility and use. Since powerful riverboats had ample steam and easy mobility for transport of the devices along rivers and into ports especially along the Mississippi River, the devices were quickly fitted into the steamboats of the day. That tradition continues today with Paddlewheel boats like the Natchez based in New Orleans, the Delta Queen (formerly Chattanooga), and the Minne-Ha-Ha on Lake George, NY continuing to steam on with their Calliopes playing traditional tunes. The Delta Queen’s calliope was mounted on the Texas deck aft of the pilot house and covers approximately three octaves. It was traditionally used to play the ship in and out of her berth while docking or undocking.

Since the circus also had large steam generation plants to power electrical generators, carousels, and various amusements, the calliope became a fit there as well. During the 1860s, Calliopes began to appear in these venues and were found on circus midways and carousels. With boilers installed on a circus wagon, calliopes were soon given mobility for use in the circus street parades. Because the sounds carried some distance, the circus calliopes typically were placed at the end of the street parades. These mobile steam instruments required a three-person crew: teamster, boilerman, and musician. And yes, boiler fires and accidents occasionally occurred.

Eventually, some innovations were made. Inventor Norman G. Baker (1882-1958), whose father is credited with more than 100 inventions, developed the first patented air-driven calliope-type device. He named it the Tangley Automatic Air Calliaphone. Baker, born into a wealthy family in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa, was enthralled by traveling shows and mentalists. In the early 1900s, Baker traveled as “Charles Welch” with his own troupe of mentalists. While Baker’s air-driven instrument did not require large steam generating facilities, the whistles remained of similar construction and there remained no significant way to control volume, pitch and tenor.

The Cole Bros. Circus AMERICA wagon steam-calliope in a parade

Technological Advances & Limitations:
The Devil is in The Details

Stoddard’s creation grew to have increased numbers of whistles, with the standard becoming thirty-two, similar to the standard range of the pipe organ pedals. Other devices built by Miner Manufacturing Company have fifty-three notes beginning at C below middle-C (or 4’C if you are an organist.)

A separate “pipe” or “whistle” is used to produce each note as the air is permitted to flow through the device. Regardless of the number of whistles, with some steamboats sporting forty-three, the shrill and distinctive pitches remain consistent even today. Historically, volume was not controllable as steam or air flow was either open or closed.

Calliope Whistles on AMERICA Circus Wagon

The earliest whistles were handcrafted by skilled craftsmen of the day, metal-working artisans who forged and worked the individual tubes into their approximate pitch. Steam heat further exacerbated the preciseness of the pitch as rapid temperature changes in the flow would cause slight expansion and subsequent contraction of the metals. All of this contributes to the historical uniqueness of the Calliope sound.

While the advent of air-driven devices reduced the impreciseness of pitch somewhat, today’s whistle creation still maintains the one-of-a-kind tenor characteristic of calliope instruments.

Tuning remains a challenge and the margins are such that near-perfect pitch is almost impossible to be achieved. Considering the impacts of external factors including weather, temperature, humidity, wind and location, the variance of pitch is considered less a detriment and more a trademark of the instrument.

Miner Mfg. Model CA-53

The advent of digital technology has made its way into the Calliope. Many modern production devices, still made by the Miner Company, include a MIDI player in addition to, or in lieu of, a traditional A-Roll drum. The MIDI device is about the size of a deck of regular playing cards and the SD (Secure Digital) storage card, like those used in modern smartphones, cameras, and electronic devices, can store thousands of songs and customized playlists. Compare that to the A-Roll which has a maximum capacity of about 10 songs.

A Traditional Sound That Lives On

There’s no other instrument like the Calliope. It’s uniqueness has not been replicated even in the era of digital synthesizing. Some things simply are not capable of replacement.

Not far from my home, in New Hope, PA a traditional carousel at a children’s entertainment venue plays Calliope music. For me, it brings back fond memories of my youth. But it spans generations, too. My eight-year-old granddaughter asked about the music when we were there. She was amazed at the sound and the richness of its history.

Who knows… perhaps the Calliope will withstand extinction.

About Don George 24 Articles
Don (WJU #3911) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG. Don led WJU's 2019 strategic planning effort, and was instrumental in launching new website, emedia and marketing initiatives. Don was a professional musician, played several instruments and arranged scores.