Saturday October 9, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Calliope
On this Day:
In 1855, Joshua Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts, patented the first calliope (musical instrument).
A calliope (see below for pronunciation) is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending a gas, originally steam or, more recently, compressed air, through large whistles—originally locomotive whistles.
A calliope is typically very loud. Even some small calliopes are audible for miles. There is no way to vary tone or loudness. Musically, the only expression possible is the pitch, rhythm, and duration of the notes.
The steam calliope is also known as a steam organ or steam piano. The air-driven calliope is sometimes called a calliaphone, the name given to it by Norman Baker, but the “Calliaphone” name is registered by the Miner Company for instruments produced under the Tangley name.
In the age of steam, the steam calliope was particularly used on riverboats and in circuses. In both cases, a steam supply was readily available for other purposes. Riverboats supplied steam from their propulsion boilers. Circus calliopes were sometimes installed in steam-drive carousels, or supplied with steam from a traction engine. The traction engine could also supply electric power for lighting, and tow the calliope in the circus parade, where it traditionally came last. Other circus calliopes were self-contained, mounted on a carved, painted and gilded wagon pulled by horses, but the presence of other steam boilers in the circus meant that fuel and expertise to run the boiler were readily available. Steam instruments often had keyboards made from brass. This was in part to resist the heat and moisture of the steam, but also for the golden shine of the highly polished keys.
Calliopes can be played by a player at a keyboard or mechanically. Mechanical operation may be by a drum similar to a music box drum, or by a roll similar to that of a player piano. Some instruments have both a keyboard and a mechanism for automated operation, others only one or the other. Some calliopes can also be played via a MIDI interface.
The whistles of a calliope are tuned to a chromatic scale, although this process is difficult and must be repeated often to maintain quality sound. Since the pitch of each note is largely affected by the temperature of the steam, accurate tuning is nearly impossible; however, the off-pitch notes (particularly in the upper register) have become something of a trademark of the steam calliope. A calliope may have anywhere from 25 to 67 whistles, but 32 is traditional for a steam calliope.
Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts patented the calliope on October 9, 1855, though his design echos previous concepts, such as an 1832 instrument called a steam trumpet, later known as a train whistle. In 1851, William Hoyt of Dupont, Indiana claimed to have conceived of a device similar to Stoddard’s calliope, but he never patented it. Later, an employee of Stoddard’s American Music, Arthur S. Denny, attempted to market an “Improved Kalliope” in Europe, but it did not catch on. In 1859, he demonstrated this instrument in Crystal Palace, London. Unlike other calliopes before or since, Denny’s Improved Kalliope let the player control the steam pressure, and therefore the volume of the music, while playing.
While Stoddard 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 has a steam calliope. These boats include the Delta Queen, the Belle of Louisville, and President. Their calliopes are played regularly on river excursions. Many surviving calliopes were built by Thomas J. Nichol, Cincinnati, Ohio, who built calliopes from 1890 until 1932. The Thomas J. Nichol calliopes featured rolled sheet copper (as used in roofing) for the resonant tube (the bell) of the whistle, lending a sweeter tone than cast bronze or brass, which were the usual materials 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. These calliopes are featured in Peru’s annual Circus City Parade. Morecraft died on December 5, 2016.
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 that 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 (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
What did the Calliope player say? Loud music is my forte!
Second, a Song:
The Red Green Show is a Canadian television comedy that aired on various channels in Canada, with its ultimate home at CBC Television, and on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States (airing on more than 100 PBS affiliates at its peak), from 1991 until the series finale 7 April 2006. The Red Green Show is essentially a cross between a sitcom and a sketch comedy series, and is a parody of home improvement, do-it-yourself, fishing, and other outdoors shows (particularly The Red Fisher Show). Reruns currently air on CBC Television, CTV Comedy Channel, and various Public Broadcasting Service stations. It was produced by S&S Productions, which is owned by Steve and Morag Smith. Directors on the series include Steve Smith, Rick Green and William G. Elliott.
During the show’s run, The Red Green Show was nominated for 23 Gemini Awards, but only won once, in 1998, for Best Performance in a Comedy Program or Series.
The title character, Red Green (Steve Smith), is a handyman who tries to find shortcuts to most of his projects, trusting most of his work to duct tape, which he calls “the handyman’s secret weapon”. He is the president of the Possum Lodge, a fictional men’s club in the small northwestern Ontario town of Possum Lake, near the also-fictional town of Port Asbestos. He and his fellow lodge members had their own television show in which they gave lessons and demonstrations in repair work, outdoor activities and advice for men.
The show’s basic concept was that of a cable television show, taped in part on a hand-held camera by Red’s nephew, Harold. The show’s structure evolved over time and included several regular segments that appeared in almost every episode. These segments were interspersed with each episode’s three main plot segments. The most frequent segments were “The Possum Lodge Word Game”, “Handyman Corner” and “Adventures with Bill”.
Red attempted to demonstrate creative and often humorous ways to tackle relatively common tasks, such as taking out the trash or making use of derelict cars or creating something extravagant out of whatever he could get his hands on. Memorable examples included a paddlewheeler made out of a van on pallets and a revolving door, a jet pack made from two propane tanks, a hybrid car from recycled golf carts and satellite dishes, a kiddie ride made from a bar stool attached to the agitator of a washing machine, and SCUBA gear made from an old gas grill, including a shark cage made from the grills. Duct tape, “the handyman’s secret weapon”, was usually the fastener of choice. In one episode, he tried to duct tape the Ontario–Quebec border as a potential solution to Quebec separatism. The segment customarily concluded with the aphorism, “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” (per Wikipedia).
In The Red Green Show episode “Out of the Woods”, Red makes a calliope using a V8 engine and an assortment of old exhaust pipes. This segment runs from 6:00 to 8:39. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away.” – Thomas Beecham
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky
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