Joshua C. Stoddard—Inventor of the Steam Calliope

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[This article first appeared in ContemporaryKeyboard magazine.]

In these days of city ordinances against noise pollution, the invention of the steam calliope by Joshua C. Stoddard (1814-1902) would hardly be welcome, unless his inventive mind had devised a method of soft-pedaling its raucous emanations. When he obtained U.S. Patent No. 13688 (also known as the Worcester Steam Piano patent) on October 9, 1855, it read: "For an instrument producing music by steam or compressed air through what are commonly known as whistles." In Claim 2 of the patent, however, only a particular type of improved valve is included, and authorities are in agreement that Joshua did not claim to be the inventor of the steam calliope per se, but rather of the combination of the instrument with a rotating studded barrel—the puppet valve.

However that may be, Joshua's purpose was not to provide the kind of musical spectacle with which the calliope has come to be associated. His stentorian intent was to call people to worship. Such intent is not surprising, in view of the evangelical fervor characteristic of the New England populace during the 19th Century. And that a man named Joshua should use his talents to develop a sort of mechanical trumpet section is, in view of the Biblical associations of the name, entirely appropriate.

But it was not to work out as Joshua Stoddard intended. Congregations and clergy in the relatively conservative Worcester, Massachusetts, of the mid-1850s didn't quite see things his way. At one time, Joshua also introduced the calliope as a replacement for carillon chimes; but this, too, proved disastrous.

Another amusing development took place during the Civil War. Joshua had the calliope mounted on troop trains carrying men to the front, and as the trains moved at slow speed the music could be heard for miles around. A more grandiose plan envisioned the use of the instrument on the battlefield for communicating the orders of generals via musical signals. This plan soon fell apart. The entire army, and even the enemy, could hear and remember the signals.

For a short time after its introduction, not only were Worcester townspeople ashamed of the calliope, but so was Stoddard's immediate family. In fact, the City of Worcester passed an ordinance, which prohibited the playing of the highly audible calliope within the limits of the municipality.

Joshua Stoddard, however, was not to be discouraged from living what seems to have been a happy life. Born August 26, 1814, at Pawlett, Vermont, the son of Nathan Ashbel and Ruth Judson Stoddard, he received some general education at the Pawlett Academy. His father successfully operated an apiary on the family farm, and young Joshua acquired a deep interest in and love for bees and honey. He became a highly knowledgeable beekeeper and continued this enterprise after moving to Worcester.

The financial returns from the beehives allowed the family to live quite well while, in his spare time, Joshua tinkered with various inventions. He married lovely Lucy Maria Hersey of Worcester on January 23, 1845, at Canaan, New York. In time, the fertile Stoddard ménage produced six children, five boys and a girl.

The family left Worcester in 1877 to take up residence in Springfield, Massachusetts, about forty miles away. Mrs. Stoddard was an evangelist and Joshua an active and conscientious member of the Advent Church. This was a sect of life-believers, or non-resurrectionists, who had a small church in Worcester. There is mention that Joshua took his calliope to religious meetings—especially in Springfield—as an accompaniment for hymn singing. In Springfield, the small flock loved it.

Joshua did a great deal of reading on pragmatic subjects and rather joyfully lived in continual expectation of the end of the world, the date of which he liked to calculate, as did other members of his religious group. Besides writing and building the calliope, he invented a hay raker. A patent for this highly successful farm implement was granted to him in 1870 and for an improved model in 1871. In 1884, he got a patent for a fire escape that was not successful, and the same fate awaited a fruit-paring machine, which he invented the year before he died.

Joshua was slight of build, and in later years had a flowing white beard and a gentle manner; he never had to wear glasses. After the death of his wife, he lived alone in a little cottage on the grounds of the Advent Church in Springfield, where he died, from natural causes, on April 4, 1902.

The original calliope, as might be expected, was different from subsequent models. There were thirteen whistles of graduated size attached in a row to the top of a steam music box. A revolving cylinder was affixed with pins of varying shape, and as it revolved, the pins turned and pressed against the puppet valve stems, lifting them, which admitted steam to the whistles. Improvements were later made, until the number of whistles varied from 20 to 32.

The application of the calliope to the circus involved mounting it on a wagon. Such a parade wagon often had two large glass mirrors on either side and was highly ornamented with aeolian harps, notes, theatre masks, and life-sized figures of Greek goddesses. It was painted in brilliant gold with gold-leaf scrollwork on each end. The impact was spectacular. The instrument was built into the parade wagon, and the wagon had a steam boiler in the back. The mechanism of the calliope involved passing the steam from the boiler through a cylinder along the top of which numerous valve chambers were arranged. In each valve chamber was placed a whistle, which emitted a particular tone. The valves were connected to the keyboard by a series of levers and wires. The calliope player either sat or stood behind the keyboard and pressed the various keys to produce a harmonious stream of musical tones. Sometimes levers were pulled back and forth to produce the sound. Usually, at the start of a parade, the pressure was built up to about 120 pounds—extremely important because the tones of the whistles depended on it.

The steam calliope brought up the rear of the parade, and it could be heard for miles before it came into sight. In addition to the driver, there was a fireman to stoke the boiler and the artist at the keyboard. The steam calliope always remained a solo instrument because it heated up so much that the pitch became distorted, thus making it impossible to include in the circus band.

Joshua Stoddard's instrument made its official first appearance on an excursion to a political meeting at Fitchburg, Mass., on July 2,1856. One witness to the event waxed absurdly ecstatic: "The horses danced pirouettes to the music; the pigs relaxed their curly tails; and even dumb calves responded with their tails straight out. Men left their fields and women with or without babies rushed to the railroad station while children by the score swarmed all over the area."

Its second appearance was on Worcester Common, two days later on July 4th. A newspaper report mentions, "the celebration started with the ringing of the bells and firing of cannon at daylight. A most interesting feature of the early morning events was the performance of the Steam Whistle, or calliope. The curious musical machine operated by steam was quite a wonder to the thronging multitude whenever it played during the day." The audience especially liked renditions of "Pop Goes The Weasel" and "Yankee Doodle."

Two months later, Joshua brought his calliope by train back to the state where he was born, to the Vermont State Fair at Burlington. Again, it caused a sensation. Shortly thereafter, he founded a steam music company to manufacture the instrument for railroads and steamships. The American Steam Music Company (which lasted four years) was located in Worcester. The company had twelve employees. It had strong backing from city capitalists; but as the result of an executive power play, Joshua was forced out of the company. True to his name, he was more suited to the Old Testament than to the machinations of modern economics.

Before this occurred, however, Joshua gained considerable fame and notoriety—and had a lot of fun to boot—by showing improved models of the music-maker in Springfield, New York, Indianapolis, Albany, Syracuse, and Rochester. In Cincinnati, he placed a calliope aboard a steamer and received a wild ovation after several compositions had been played. There is a possibility that the Nixon & Kemp Circus bought this very calliope, since an ad in the Detroit Free Press for April 18, 1857, featured a picture of it. The date is just six months after the calliope visited Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and marked the beginning of the spring tour for the circus; it was the logical time to advertise the new musical marvel.

After the calliope's appearance on a tugboat and its demonstration around Manhattan Island in New York City, a Mr. S.H. Townsend, operator of a small group of boats on the Hudson River, quickly installed one on his side-wheeler, the Glen Cove, and business tripled the first season. Then a 34-whistle type was installed on the Armenia. Another calliope appeared on the upper Mississippi on the steamer Excelsior with Captain James Ward in command. He is reported to have told friends that it was hard on light sleepers.

Before 1865, the calliope went out of fashion on the upper part of the river, but it remained hugely popular and successful on the lower Mississippi for many years. It was even more successful on the Sacramento River in California, where almost every boat was equipped with one. Even the Pasha of Egypt is reported to have had one, and another was set up in a lighthouse on the coast of Nova Scotia, the idea being that different tunes would inform ships' captains of changing weather conditions.

When the American Steam Music Company folded, other companies came into the field and manufactured calliopes for a period of over 45 years. These included the Kirkup Company, the Van Dusen Bell Works, the Thomas J. Nichol Company, and the Kratz Brass & Iron Foundry and Machine Works.

By 1876, a much-improved type was displayed at the gigantic Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. This machine was later placed on the excursion steamer General Sedgwick, where it was a feature attraction for ten years. The Sedgwick was sold in 1887 and renamed the Bay Queen. The new owners removed the calliope, preferring a calm atmosphere for their elegant clientele.

By this time, many circuses had a calliope. The Spaulding & Rogers Circus first used one in 1857 on their showboat Floating Palace, for which the James Raymond was used as a towing steamer. The Palace had an elegant concert hall called the Ridola, with all the equipment and scenery of a first-class theater even to the cane-bottomed chairs.

Other shows featuring the calliope over the years included Wood's Great Monkey Circus And Burlesque Dramatic Troupe; Levi J. North's Amphitheatre; Grizzley Adam's Pacific Museum; Howes & Cushing Circus; Sands, Nathan's & Company Of American & English Circus; Cooper & Bailey; John Robinson Shows; Ringling Brothers; Hagenbeck-Wallace; Robbins Brothers; Christy Brothers & Walter L. Main Circuses; the famed Sells-Floto Circus; and the Haag Shows. Even up to 1952, the King Brothers And Cristiani Circus used a steam calliope, which had appeared, with many shows in the past, in street parades.

Circus literature recounts the story of Merle Evans, bandleader of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus for several decades. As a cornettist, he achieved the reputation of being the loudest cornet of all time, having been hired at one time to replace a calliope. Early in his career he first ran up against the calliope onboard the Cotton Blossom, one of the showboats of the early 1900s. He was crushed. Forthwith, he devoted his days to practicing against the calliope, finally achieving sufficient volume—combined with other virtues the calliope did not have, like mobility and constant pitch— to put the calliope in second place.

Circus literature is full of loving references to the calliope: The entrance of the elephants is accompanied by the tune "Entry Of The Gladiators," referred to as a "calliope-like number"; Roland Butler, an early circus publicist, is said to have developed an "ornate vocabulary and calliope tones"; in the 1920s the "nuisance" of the parades to the circus people was discounted as in large part an advertising scheme to let a calliope blast away and trick the farmers into town; circus parades during World War I "let off the calliope steam of tension"; and finally, in an ironic fulfillment of Joshua Stoddard's original vision, the Sells-Forepaugh Circus used a calliope to attract crowds away from their competition—Barnum & Bailey, "The Greatest Show On Earth."

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Miner Manufacturing Calliaphone calliope: Check out the photos here, showing internal parts of a steam calliope.

View Stoddard’s Patent for an “Apparatus for Producing Music by Steam or Compressed Air.”