Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on September 3, 1972 · Page 50
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 50

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, September 3, 1972
Page 50
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Page 50 article text (OCR)

The Fire-Eating Music Box If it goes like it did last year, the 1 overture and prelude lo Charleston's Second Annual Sternwheel Regatta on the Kanawha River today will be played on an instrument as American as "Yankee Doodle," but more rare than a Ford Tin Lizzie. It will be the calliope, one of the earliest and most effective forms of outdoor advertising. Originally it was spelled with a "K". If you're from certain parts of the country or if you haven't heard it pronounced, that's "cally-ope" or steam- PIE-anna. But look it up and you'll find it's really pronounced "Ca-LIE-o-pe," with the accent on the "lie." A calliope is an instrument with stopped flute-type metal pipes voiced on high pressure and intended for outdoor use. Barrel-operated or roll-operated steam calliopes, made mainly during the 19th century, used steam to blow the pipes. Calliope music advertising a steam boat's coming could be heard by the farmer plowing his field, or by the woman washing on an outside scrub board from as far away as 12 miles. When they heard it, dogs barked, children yelled, adults paused in their work--excitement was kindled. The story is told of the mountaineer who, hearing the calliope for the first time, mistook it for some strange animal and hurried down to the landing with his gun and his hound ready to exterminate the varmint. Strong calliope notes echoing from hill to hill down the river valleys had greater power than dozens of printed posters. The vibrant music promised something now, not in the future. It announced with a mighty voice that that the showboat had arrived. Invented by the man who later dreamed up the horse drawn hayrake, the steam calliope, a pure American invention, made its first appearance appropriately, on July 4, 1855. This first calliope was so named because Calliope in Greek mythology was the muse of epic poetry. The word also means sweetvoiced or magnificient- voiced. The public soon discovered this new machine was aptly named. First shown on the Worchester Commons, Mass.. the instrument had a keyboard. Later ones didn't. Joshua Stoddard of Worchester. the inventor, stoked the wood fire to maintain the pressure and his sister Edna played. The instrument was an instant success. The fire-eating machine had 15 whistles fashioned like the locomotive whistles that had fascinated Stoddard as a boy. They were gradated in size. These whistles were attached in a row to the top of a small steam boiler. A long cylinder with pins of different shapes driven into it ran the length of the boiler. The pins were arranged so that when the cylinder revolved they pressed the valves and blew the whistles in proper sequence. He later replaced the cylinder with a keyboard about two feet wide at the open part of the "V." Wires were run from the keys to the valves. It was played like a piano. The keys were made of brass to withstand the heat. Stodtlards machine was shown again in 1856. By this time he had, with the backing of local industrialists, formed a company called the American Steam Co. The American Steam Company's calliope was mounted on wheels and attached to the rear of a passenger train. The exhibition was a success. The calliope was a success. Moddard was not. He had more talent for 4m CHARLESTON, Bv Pat Houck inventing than he did for business and within five years he was maneuvered out of his own business. The new owner, Arthur S. Denny, (sometimes spelled Deny) even had the audacity to claim the invention of the calliope as his own. In fact a London News article of 1859 gives Denny credit for the invention. Stoddard had patented it in 1855. If anyone had prior claim to the calliope's invention it would have been William Hoyt of Dupont, Ind. who had been working for a number of years on an "instrument which could produce music by the agency of steam." Under Denny, the American Steam Co. and the sale of calliopes grew. The instrument was exhibited abroad for the first time in England in 1859. The London News carried the report, calling the instrument a steam organ," the softest- toned ever made." It was played on at the pressure of five pounds to a square snch--the maximum employed in church organs is five ounces. Various uses of the new instrument were projected. It was suggested the calliope could be used on the field of battle to convey the orders of a general, or as a substitute for chime bells. (It was Stoddards original intent that the instrument be used in church.) The article told of a calliope which was used by the English Government on the coast of Nova Scotia to signal boats. The report also drew attention to the fact the instruments could be better used if it were not for the volumes of steam they gave off. This shortcoming was soon to be corrected. Calliopes found their true home on steamboats and circuses. During the laie 1850's, most river packets carried a calliope or a brass band. Some carried both. The calliope's first success on the river came on the Old Hudson River Day Line's steamer "Glen Cove." Owners desperate at continually going into the red, gambled that Stoddard's machine would attract attention to the ship and to the pleasures such travel offered. Their gamble paid off and business soon doubled. Calliopes served steamboats well. Often placed on the top deck of the showboat with its steam piped either from the tow or from its own boiler, the calliope did double duty, for in its off duty time its pipes provided distilled drinking water. Showboat calliopes achieved popularity through the skill of their players. Besides having a knowledge of music, the player had to be a hardy soul. The first instruments were torture and the typical allegro calliope style was one of necessity. Those hot brass keys were too uncomfortable to hold do'wn long. Often the "professors" as the calliope players were called, were accused of being drunks because their ordeal left them staggering and red faced. They were often accused of being boiled in more ways than one. Many stories are " told of the "professors." These intrepid musicians were a colorful lot. who displayed quick wit and ready ingenuity, because the kevs and valves usually stuck in the middle of a tune. There was a taboo about one tune only. That was "Home, Sweet Home." The superstition that the calliope playing that tune would be at the river bottom before the next day. Certain songs 'were played on a s h o w b o a t ' s a r r i v a l , others were traditional for departure^ Homer Denny, famous cailiopist' of the steamer Island VV. VA. · ' ' Melodious sounds of the river packet's calliope \vata Sunday Gazette-Mail

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