February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
In 1855 a Worcester, Massachusetts, man named Joshua C. Stoddard, secure in his era’s faith in the boundless possibilities of steam, patented a steam-powered organ. It was known as a “steam piano,” but Stoddard, finding this too leaden a title for his entirely new musical instrument, christened it after the chief of the nine muses, Calliope, “the beautiful voiced.” Showmen immediately recognized the calliope’s potential; the strident, piercing noise could pull people across town for a circus parade, or herald the approach of a showboat from five miles upriver. Nixon and Kemp’s Great Eastern show bought one as early as 1857, and Spaulding and Rogers put one on their Floating Circus Palace the next year. Stoddard founded the American Steam Music Company and produced the huge-lunged machines until the Civil War.
This extraordinary ambrotype, sent to us by Paul E. Rieger of Sylvania, Ohio, shows the inventor with a very early fifteen-pipe calliope—perhaps the first he built. In time, the instruments grew to have as many as fifty-eight pipes, but they were monsters to play. At the end of each performance, the calliopist would stagger away from his instrument half-drunk with din and parboiled by the live steam that gave it voice. In time, air calliopes came into use, even though they produced a pallid noise in comparison to the squealing thump of the steam ones. Today there are probably fewer than a dozen real calliopes still in playing condition.