Calliope (music)

A calliope is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending steam through whistles, originally locomotive whistles. The calliope is also known as a "steam organ" or "steam piano". It was often played on riverboats and in circuses, where it was sometimes mounted on a carved, painted and gilded horse-drawn wagon in a circus parade (picture, right).

The instrument's name originates from Greek mythology: Calliope (pronounced [[Help:pronunciation|/kə.ˈlaɪ.o.pi/]]), daughter of Zeus, was chief of the Muses and mother of Orpheus. Her name, in Greek, means "beautiful voiced".

A calliope is typically very loud; even small calliopes produce sound that can travel for miles.


Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts patented the calliope on October 9, 1855, although it is based on previously known concepts (e.g. in 1832, a musical instrument designer made a "steam trumpet" later to be known as a train whistle).

While Stoddard had originally intended the calliope to replace bells at churches, it found its way onto riverboats during the paddlewheel era. While only a small number of working steamboats still exist, each one has a steam calliope. Many of the surviving calliopes were built by Thomas J. Nichol, Cincinnati, Ohio, who built calliopes from 1890 until 1932. These boats include the Delta Queen and President. Their calliopes are played regularly on river excursions. The Thomas J. Nichol calliopes featured rolled sheet copper (like used in roofing) for the resonant tube (the bell) of the whistle, lending a sweeter tone than cast bronze or brass which was the common material for steam whistles of the day. David Morecraft pioneered a resurgence in the building of authentic steam calliopes of the Thomas J. Nichol style beginning in 1985 in Peru, Indiana and is still in business today, the last commercial authentic steam calliope builder in the world.

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

Starting in the 1900s, calliopes began using music rolls instead of a live musician. The music roll operated in a similar manner to a piano roll in a player piano, mechanically operating the keys. Many of these mechanical calliopes retained keyboards, allowing a live musician to play them if needed. During this period, compressed air began to replace steam as the vehicle of producing sound.

Most calliopes disappeared in the mid-20th century, as steam power was replaced with other power sources. Without the demand for technicians that mines and railroads supplied, no support was available to keep boilers running. Only a few calliopes have survived, and these are rarely played.

Tom Waits' 2002 release Blood Money features a track written for trumpet and calliope.


The correct pronunciation of the word 'calliope' has always been disputed: some proponents claim it should be pronounced [[Help:pronunciation|/kəl:.aɪ.o.pi/]], after the Greek muse, while others claim that [[Help:pronunciation|/kæ.li.op/]] is correct. A nineteenth century magazine, Reedy’s Mirror, attempted to settle the dispute by publishing this rhyme:

Proud folk stare after me,
Call me Calliope;
Tooting joy, tooting hope,
I am the calliope.

This, in turn, was taken from a poem by Vachel Lindsay, called "The Kallyope Yell" [sic]. In this poem, Lindsay uses both pronunciations. An analysis of the poem may be found here ().

Related instruments


The calliope is similar to the pyrophone; the difference between the two is that the calliope is an external combustion instrument and the pyrophone is an internal combustion instrument.

One episode of the first season of Mission Impossible 1966 named "OLD MAN OUT" (parts 1 and 2) makes use of a calliope as a musical instrument and also as a timing cue to the development of the story.

At 1998's Burning Man, a pyrophone referred to as "Satan's Calliope" was powered by ignition of propane inside resonant cavities. Thus this device was incorrectly referred to as a "calliope", since a calliope is an external combustion instrument. See Metro Santa Cruz article Image


Another related instrument is the callioflute, a type of hydraulophone played by blocking one or more water jets with the fingers. Blocking a water jet forces water into a heater that converts it to steam. While not a hydraulophone in the strictest sense (sound is produced by steam rather than by water) it facilitates the same expressive capabilities (i.e. polyphonic embouchure) that a hydraulophone facilitates. In this sense the callioflute provides some improvements over the calliope in the sense that the callioflute enables a musician to attain subtle changes in pitch, timbre, volume, and tone, by the way in which the water jets are obstructed with the fingers. Reference: Proceedings of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) International Conference on Multimedia, pp181-190, Singapore, 2005


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