The Calliope: Just Blowing Off Steam

Steam Calliope on the paddle-wheeler Natchez in New Orleans

Delta Queen Calliope Music

A Calliope By Any other Name...

Anyone that has heard a steam calliope has got to wonder how in the hell the calliope got its name? After all, the instrument's named after the Greek mythology goddess: Calliope. The daughter of Zeus, who was incharge of the Muses and the mother of Orpheus. The name Calliope, in Greek, means "beautiful voiced," which may be a stretch if you have heard a steam organ being played. A colliope is loud there is no getting around that, even the small calliopes produce a sound that can travel for up to 12 miles. But "beautiful voiced" may not be exactly the right name for this..er..umm..instrument. Unless of course you are one of the people who really love the sound of the calliope. That's pronounced "kally-ope" by some circus folk, but to many others it's usually pronounced “kal-eye-o-pee."

Pronounce it however you like. You can even call it a steam piano or a steam organ, but let that American heart swell with pride. Because the calliope is an American invention. That's right we can blame the Scots for the gift of the bagpipes, but the good ol' U.S. gave the world the steam piano.

The calliope is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending steam through whistles... originally locomotive whistles were used. The steam organ has been often played on riverboats and in circuses. The calliope was sometimes mounted on a carved, painted horse-drawn wagon in a circus parade for the reason that the sound would carry for miles and miles. Attracting attention to the town's people that the circus was in town.

The showboat "New Sensation" reintroduced the calliope, after the Civil War, in 1877. "The Excelsior", was the first western steamboat to have a calliope on the Mississippi River. Some do claim that the Union got the first steam piano in 1858. The famous "Delta Queen" in 1960 received the first calliope with a remote keyboard, that was located a safe distance from the whistles. It was installed by the famous Commodore E. J. Quimby, who found a calliope salvaged from the showboat "Water Queen." Many of the calliopes you still find today on several boats were built by Thomas J. Nichol of Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 19th and early 20th century. The "Delta Queen's" calliope is one of the Thomas J. Nichol's steam pianos.

Around the 1900s, calliopes began using music rolls, a la player piano style, instead of a live musician. Many of these mechanical calliopes retained keyboards, allowing a live musician to play them if needed. During this time, safer compressed air, replace steam as the fuel to produce sound.

Most of the calliopes had disappeared in the mid-20th century, as steam power was replaced with compressed air. That left little or no support to keep the boilers running. Only about 13 of these steam calliopes have survived, and they are rarely played.

David Morecraft pioneered a resurgence in the building of authentic steam calliopes of the Thomas J. Nichol style beginning in 1985 in Peru, Indiana; which is still in business today. David is the last authentic commercial steam calliope builder in the world. These calliopes are featured in Peru, Indiana's  annual Circus City Parade.

In 2002, Tom Waits released "Blood Money" which features a track written for trumpets and calliope.

Calliope Music

Joshua C. Stoddard, the Evil Genius

Patented on October 9, 1855, the calliope was based on another concept called a "steam trumpet," a melodious little instrument, later known as the train whistle. The calliope's inventor, Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts had originally intended the calliope to replace bells at churches, but because of how loud it was...the steam organ found its way onto riverboats during the paddlewheel era. And later to the showboats of the lower Mississippi River and the circus.

Stoddard's original calliope was attached to a metal roller set with pins in a manner familiar to a clockwork music box. The pins on the roller opened the valves which let steam into the whistles. Later, Stoddard replaced the cylinder with a keyboard, so that the calliope could be played like an organ.

The "Floating Palace" was sailed by the Spaulding and Rogers North American Circus was the first to introduce the calliope on a show boat. Not only did the instrument attract an amazed audience, but the calliope also outperformed the bands of competing boats simply because it was much louder.

Sweet Music

There are only 14 working calliopes in existence today. Calliopes are as much a part of Mississippi River lore as the paddle wheels they adorn. In their glory days, calliopists were brave hardy souls. They had to live through blistering hot, hard to push keys, and sadistic boiling water, with blasts of steam, spewing blazing embers from the smokestack. The instruments were deafening, and hard to master. Someone described playing the calliope, "like a piano that you wrestle."

Today's modern calliopes are like Cadillacs, with electric valves and ivory keys. Since they new calliopes are powered by compressed air...you get to miss out on being showered with soot. A modern calliope can still be heard playing "Oh, Susanna." "Camptown Races,"  and 'My Old Kentucky Home " up to 8 miles away. Today's calliope can still make a stirring rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" sound like a drunken sailor's song...  Harry Caray is probably looking down from the heavens with a slight tear rolling down from one of his blood shot eyes.

"It's such a rare instrument, that when people hear it, you see looks of delight on their faces," says Jazzou Jones, calliopist and steamboat director on the Delta Queen. Jazzou has admitted to being threatened with a lawsuit in Pittsburgh, due to their a noise ordinance. 

Indiana University Steam Calliope

Steam Calliopes The Tell All

“After that came the climax and the finale. This was the loudest monster of all. It shook the windows and deafened the ears. It bellowed black smoke that choked the throat and burned the eyes. This was no earthshaking dragon, but, rather, the steam calliope. Inside the ornate wagon a calliope player was swathed in a cloud of steam as the thirty-two whistles of his steam-powered mechanical musical monster sounded off. He operated a keyboard which activated a series of tuned whistles, each as big and loud as the one on a firehouse or a steamboat.

It played awful music. It was too loud for comfort and, despite the fact that its manipulator was as much a plumber as musician, one never found a calliope with all whistles in tune at one time. The back end of a calliope wagon contained the upright boiler and an attendant kept it stoked with coal or wood so there was plenty of pressure whenever the player decided to render “Over the Waves” or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” The raucous hoots and toots of the calliope served like the pipes of Pan. Inevitably, people fell in behind it and followed the show to the circus grounds.”

...fromThe Circus in America, by Charles Philip Fox and Tom Parkinson.

Introduction to the Calliope

Comments 20 comments

Iphigenia 7 years ago

These are amazing things - never heard of them until today. I do know that Tom Waits track but didn't really make a note of the instrumentals. I truly enjoyed learning about a fantastic, fun thing and the people who are passionate about them.


packerpack profile image

packerpack 7 years ago from India, Calcutta

Yet another Hub with some detailed analysis and as usual this information that you have presented is yet again new to me. Thanks again for the information


BrianS profile image

BrianS 7 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

Well you have to call them something so why not Calliope, I guess if the internet had been around when these were named then whoever came up with it could have researched something more appropriate.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Iphigenia... Thank you! Lately, I have tried to bring the small things to life.

PackerPack... What fun would be in writing if we both couldn't learn something.

BrianS... A calliope by any other name would still sound as shrill, but it will always feel happy. You can't play the blues on a steam piano... It will make it sound like fun.


BkCreative profile image

BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

I love these - heard one in Amsterdam - it looked good, sounded good and made you stop and smile!

Thanks for this info!


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thank you BkCreative... The Amsterdam calliope is a bit softer in sound, compared to the American version. But isn't pretty much true when you compare America with Europe... Bigger, Louder, and much more.


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States

Thanks for writing about calliopes. They have a truly unique sound, used sometimes to evoke insanity or disquiet in movies, although I can't recall specific movies now. Actually the TV show, "The Prisoner" comes to mind.

I like them as a recorded instrument, but with a range of up to 12 miles, I don't know if I'd like to be at a live performance!


joarline profile image

joarline 7 years ago from Skull Valley, Az.

Hey St. James,

In college I was trained as a baroque pipe organist. Calliopes are not so far removed. I have great memories coming back as I read your piece. Have you (of course you have ) visited the music museum in Ft. Meyers? Loved that too. I have an off beat sense of musical development. I teach my students that it is possible to make music on more than just the radio, CD player etc. Thanks for the update. JO


DarleneMarie profile image

DarleneMarie 7 years ago from USA

Super informative Hub. Hearing the sounds of a calliope makes me instantly think of a circus and made me smile.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Tom Rubenoff... thanks for pointing out the use of the calliopes in soundtracks. I found it strange the original idea was to replace the church bell... talk about a rude awakening early Sunday morning... at least a tolling bell in the distance is soothing.

Jo the baroque pipe organ is such a beautiful instrument. Music needs to be taught without limitations. Like most forms of art today, most teachers try to confine and stifle creativity to conform into boundries... Funny because art is to reject what conforms and to reach the outer limitations.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Darlene Marie... it's true! when you hear a calliope you can't help but to smile... It's what is called a happy instrument, just like a banjo, You can't play a sad song on one. Everything instantly sounds happy when played on a calliope.


the eye profile image

the eye 7 years ago

Great hub

I didn't know anything about it

U are the man


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thank you.. The Eye. I (eye) have been trying to take things out of the ordinary.


blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

Hi there St.James I am gradually catching up to you. It is like a greyhound chasing a rabbit on one of those thingy jigs and they never quite catch it.

I too have never heard of a calliope if you had not written about it. If someone would have asked me beforehand what a calliope was I would have looked blankly into space and said "Umm is it a type of antelope".

They are really cool looking,extroidinary contraptions aren't they St.James, I have never seen anything like them before.You certainly choose very interesting topics to write about and you handle them like a true master. :)


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Flattery will get you far BlondePoet. Calliope is also a Greek Goddess. Thank you for trying to keep up... ;)


calliope man 7 years ago

I've loved the calliope ever since I heard the one on the Str. Natchez in 2005. I'm building on like the little one in the Youtube video above "Joshua c. Stoddard". I know why there is only one company making the calliope, they are really hard to build. They are a great prodject for anyone with the pacients and time. I found plans in the Decmeber 1982 edition of Popular Mechanics on Google books.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Wow Calliope Man! That is quite a task to endevour. I wish you the best... and maybe soon I'll be add you, and your calliope into this story.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

Cool hub, St James.  We can count on you do get the whole story.

It is nostalgic when you can remember the sound from the circuses of your childhood -- I can.

I have a friend who got a chance to play the one on the Delta Queen when they took the cruise. It was a memorable experience for her.


St.James profile image

St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida Author

Thank you Rochelle! The pipe organ seems to bring back good memories and smiles to most people... but it is a "happy" instrument. You don't hear many sad songs played on the calliope.


bettie mccullough 5 years ago

I had a great uncle who played these on show boats I was told by my father out of St.Louis.His name was Louis Hahn. I grew up on the Cumberland river and Opry Land has a showboat with that sound,I love the rivers and there history. Bettie Hahn McCullough

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