Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Calliope

The Calliope, a steam-powered musical instrument, was invented by Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, MA in 1855.

The name originates from Zeus' daughter Calliope, (whose name in turn means beautiful voice in Greek). Calliope was the Muse of poetry, however - the spoken word is that for which her beautiful voice was famed, not music. The device should probably have been called the Euterpe or Euterpephone instead, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it, I'll admit.

The calliope operates via a series of whistles through which scalding-hot pressurized steam is forced. They're tuned to a chromatic scale, but are almost always off-key because the temperature of the steam is not predictable. The off-kilter sound of the Calliope is part of what lends a psychologically creepy feeling to clowns and circuses, with which the instrument is well associated.

Anton LaVey recounted stories of his carny days as a Calliope player for shady, low-budget traveling carnivals. He noted that the instrument was poorly maintained, and thus he was taking his life in his own hands each time he performed on it, expecting that it could explode in his face at any moment.

A similar device, called a Pyrophone, operated on an even more dangerous principle: it played musical notes via internal combustion. Also known as a "Fire Organ" or "Explosion Organ".

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