1851: William Hoyt of Dupont, Ind., invents the calliope.
1855: Joshua Stoddard, a Vermont farmer/inventor, obtains the first U.S. patent and founds the American Steam Music Co.
1856: Stoddard mounts his calliope on a church steeple during winter. The steam pipes freeze. When the calliopist plays it, it explodes and blows the steeple off the church.
Circus king P.T. Barnum makes the calliope famous when he mounts it on a circus wagon.
1858: First steam calliope on an Ohio River boat, the Unicorn. Calliopes were mounted on top decks or steam towboats. Its purpose was to hail the arrival of the showboats, and alert the townsfolk about the evening's performance.
Most early calliopes had a small range (13 to 20 whistles). Many had 32 whistles, and the largest had 588. (Source: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians)
Made in Cincinnati
With the long history of music in Cincinnati, it's not surprising to learn that 90 percent of all steam calliopes heard on American waterways were built in Cincinnati.
"Of all the historic steam calliopes still existing in playable condition, all are Thomas J. Nichol originals," says Travis Vasconcelos, calliopist and "riverlorian" on the Mississippi Queen.
Nichol built calliopes from 1890 to 1932. He originally worked for the Van Duzen foundry, where he made castings for steamboat whistles and church bells. He left the company, established Nichol Valve Co. and built calliopes.
His calliopes sound "sweeter" than others because he made the whistle bells (the resonant column) out of rolled copper. Most other builders used brass.
On the Delta Queen, history takes its time
Calliopes blast out that shrill, sweet song
Three boats boast authentic calliopes
Timeline of the early calliope
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