Skip to main content

Don’t Boil The Calliope Player, Or, Good News For Music Lovers

June 2024
4min read

Inch by inch, humanity edges forward. First it was the wheel, and the next thing you know we had hieroglyphics, vitamins, and Duz doing everything. But, as everyone is aware, there is another, rather dark side to this shining picture, tor progress tends to skip about a little at times, getting things all out of order. Sometimes inventions come too early, as in the case of Eratosthenes of Alexandria, who figured out way back in the third century before Christ, and before the information was of any use, that the earth has a circumference of about 25,000 miles. On the other hand, a new device may come at the very last minute, like radar, which did so much to save England from the Luftwaffe . But sometimes, to be candid, the inventor dawdles shockingly. In the case we are discussing here, for example, he has, by a paradox, both made and missed the boat.

The boat in question is the paddle steamer once so familiar on our lakes and rivers, and the invention carries forward the work begun in 1855, when Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts, patented the steam calliope. Rigged on the hurricane decks of old-time river boats, calliopes—or “steam pianos” as initiates called them—enchanted thousands with their brassy, piercing melodies. Showboat ‘round the bend! they proclaimed, to the tune of “Dixie” or “Beautiful Ohio.” But as the pipes bombarded happy ears for miles about, the suffering artiste at the keyboard was boiling. The verb must be taken literally.

The steam calliope, as Stoddard worked it out, was a series of thirty-two whistles mounted on a manifold leading from a source of steam—on river boats, right oft the stack. The manifold was shaped like a horseshoe so that mechanical valves to open and close the various whistles could be operated by “tracker” rods at a reasonable distance from the open end, where the operator sat at a keyboard. A diagram on the next page, we hope, makes all this clear. The keys were made of brass, to withstand the intense heat so close at hand, but the man at the keyboard, alas! was made not of brass, but of flesh and blood. First he was deluged by sparks. Then he was boiled by the hot water condensation. Next, gasping for breath, he would” be parboiled by live steam. The keys burned his fingers but he had to hold them down hard, for the calliope was no instrument for the light, tripping touch, for the adagio or for the grace note; its single mood was fortissimo.

As each performance came mercifully to an end, the groggy musician, red of face, bloodshot of eye, would stagger from his post exhausted and search desperately for cooling drinks. Since he already looked drunk—or, to choose our word carefully, boiled—his reputation suffered no further harm when he lent truth to appearances. How many calliopists met drunkards’ deaths? No one knows, lor history has drawn its veil over these needless tragedies. Indeed, it has almost drawn the veil as well over the dread instrument itself, for only one or two still exist.•

• We must scorn to speak here of the fake, or non-steam variety.

Nevertheless, reformers do not shrink from their tasks for trivial reasons. The man who has picked up the torch where Stoddard’s blistered fingers dropped it is a sixtyish inventor named E. J. Ouinby, a broadly hobbied man who is deeply and impartially enamored of pipe organs, trolley cars, and steamboats. The organ in his house has so many pipes and extra touches that barely closet room remains for the human tenants. Quinby is also a doer, and when he observed that trolley cars all over America were being abandoned and burned, he helped set up a museum, or home for elderly trams, in Branford, Connecticut, and there some forty of them make their stately passage on occasion to this day. It was in pursuit of his steamboat hobby, however, in the course of which he helped rescue and revitalize the operations of the Delta Queen , last steam packet on the inland rivers, that the apple we are discussing in this narrative fell on Quinby’s receptive head.

He would, he decided, revive and improve the steam calliope. The first step, of course, was to find one.

There had been a showboat called the Water Queen with a fine calliope, he learned, but she had sunk, instrument and all, in the Kanawha River. Quinby set oil on the spoor. Jt led to the former calliopist, one “Crazy Ray” Choisier, who had salvaged the contraption and played it in carnivals until his death, when the King Brothers Circus acquired it. Eventually the search brought Ouinby to “Slim” Somers of Waterbury, Connecticut, a collector who parted with his treasure only on the explicit condition that it play again.

It was now that Ouinby, fifty-odd years after the calliope had for all practical purposes disappeared from the national scene, introduced the revolutionary idea which, had there been more than a handful of calliope players left, other than himself, would have benefited humanity enormously. To use a low idiom, he took the heat off the calliopist.

The heart of Quinby’s invention is a remote keyboard. Set at a safe distance from the steam whistles, now arranged in a straight line, ivory keys furnished with mercury contacts activate the whistles by electricity. Solenoid valves open and shut the passages that send the steam whooping atop the steamboat. The operator is cool and dry. He can employ a brisk, staccato technique when he wants to, and it he gets drunk, one may look ior the cause to Sigmund Freud rather than Joshua C. Stoddard.

There are still other Quinby refinements, including a handy steam-pressure gauge and a Toot pedal with which to increase or lower the amount of steam admitted to the instrument, a tool which gives the performer the illusion that he is seated at the organ—and not a bit weary or ill at ease. Finally, the inventor has licked the night-time problem of the calliopist. Back in the bad old days, no one could see him, blowing away out there in the dark. Consequently Quinby has added the “Aurora Fffect,” a series of hidden lights, installed under the whistles, which illumine all the plumes of trailing steam with different colors. They can be seen at almost as gratilyingly great a distance as the noise, or music, can be heard.

The success of his steamboat calliope, now a brassy feature all up and down the Ohio, Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers where the Delta Queen makes her excursions, has only fortified Quinby for fresh exertions. He has designed and is building a kindred device for the electric open streetcar, a kind of “trolleyope,” which will use compressed air from the brake pump (the panting organ under the floor that used to go thump-thump thump when the cars paused) to play airs on various trolley bells, horns, and whistles. Once again the inventor is meeting the need of the hour, albeit an hour that occurred in about 1930, when the street railway commenced to vanish in America. Only a handful of trolleys—practically none of them open—still run, to state the unvarnished if regrettable truth. But no matter. Quinby will make their last trips unforgettable.

So much for our report on scientific advances in the music world up until August, iyGo. The calliopists, such as they are, are enjoying themselves, and the colored lights arc playing at Memphis, Vicksburg, and St. Louis, Louis. And, just as Eratosthenes at long last was rewarded by the appearance of Bowditch, Stoddard has found his Ouinby.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.