Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Steam Powered Calliope

Calliope wail like a seaside zoo
The very last lately inquired about you
It's really very one or two
The first you wanted, the last I knew

(from "Cosmic Charley" Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia)

Okay, now that I've got the Grateful Dead lyrics out of my head, I can get on with the blog post. It's remarkable how I could concentrate on researching the calliope with that song running through my brain.

1874 Poster
I crave the appearance of a calliope in my work in progress. I'm always saying how wonderful it is to have music in your writing and this is such an unusual musical instrument, so I went on a hunt for their history and various forms. I won't bore you with too many technical details, but basically, it's a steam organ or steam piano. These days they often use compressed air. They were popular on riverboats where steam was already available to power the boat. Here you can see a modern video of one on a riverboat:

At circuses calliopes shared the steam power that drove the carousels, so that is why they became the classic carousel music. Some calliopes were in there own fancy wagons to be towed in the circus parade.

The design was patented in 1855 by Joshua C. Stoddard in Massachusetts. He wasn't the first to think up a steam powered musical instrument. In 1832 another guy invented the steam trumpet (a.k.a. train whistle.)

Something interesting I found while researching- "The Greatest Tattooed Man on Earth," Mose Smith (1891-1948),  played the calliope. Nowadays the grandeur of his tattooing probably wouldn't be as shocking as it was at the time. But he toured with Ringling Bros as well as other shows. Another tidbit- he kept snakes and an orangutan.

 You can buy calliope music at this link. They let you listen to a sample too.
Our trip to Disneyland in 2010

Hmm, now that I've discovered calliope's sister instrument, the propane powered pyrophone, I may change my story writing plans.

*links to image sources embedded in image captions (unless image is my own)


Joylene Butler said...

The closest I ever got to a calliope was in Barkerville, BC. I think they're marvelous. Wonderful photos, Amanda.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Very cool, Joylene! :)
Thanks! :)

Amie Kaufman said...

That is just too cool. I've never heard of the Calliope before. I want to see one now!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Sounds like road trip time to me, Amie! :D

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