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© 2007-2014
Jan Bender

Bender Melodies


Calliopes Were Invented
in the United States

Calliopes are instruments, intended for outdoor use,
that produce musical sound using air under high pressure through stopped metal pipes or “whistles”. The word calliope is pronounced in two different ways: “kally-ope” by people in the circus and “kal-eye-o-pee” by others. The calliope is special in the world of mechanical musical instruments because of its American origin and traditional use by our circuses and riverboats.

The first calliope was a steam powered instrument played with a keyboard. It was invented by Joshua Stoddard and demonstrated by his young daughter on July 4, 1855 in Worchester, Massachusetts. The firm he started went on to produce both hand-played and automatic steam calliopes used on large riverboats. Some could be heard 12 miles away.

Circus Parade with Calliope
By the 1870’s, small steam calliopes became
the popular last unit of the circus parade.

Steam calliopes were not only very loud, difficult to play, and often out of tune, but they could be dangerous. However, they continued to be used for many years.
Sparks Circus Calliope wagon
Sparks Circus Calliope
c. 1916

This graphic description of a steam calliope tells it all:

   “After that came the climax and the finale. This was the loudest monster of all. It shook the windows and deafened the ears. It bellowed black smoke that choked the throat and burned the eyes. This was no earthshaking dragon, but, rather, the steam calliope. Inside the ornate wagon a calliope player was swathed in a cloud of steam as the thirty-two whistles of his steam-powered mechanical musical monster sounded off. He operated a keyboard which activated a series of tuned whistles, each as big and loud as the one on a firehouse or a steamboat.

   It played awful music. It was too loud for comfort and, despite the fact that its manipulator was as much a plumber as musician, one never found a calliope with all whistles in tune at one time. The back end of a calliope wagon contained the upright boiler and an attendant kept it stoked with coal or wood so there was plenty of pressure whenever the player decided to render “Over the Waves” or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” The raucous hoots and toots of the calliope served like the pipes of Pan. Inevitably, people fell in behind it and followed the show to the circus grounds.”

Quoted from
The Circus in America, by Charles Philip Fox and Tom Parkinson, pgs. 194, 199. Re-printed in 2002 by Hennesse+Ingalls, Santa Monica, CA. Originally published in 1969. This is an excellent book covering all aspects of the 200 year history of circuses in America. It has lots of historical photographs and color reproductions of posters and is based on the collection at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This is a “must have” book for those interested in the history of the circus.

Cole Bros. Calliope

This Cole Brothers Circus Calliope survived into the 1930's
Barnum and Bailey Steam Calliope Barnum and Bailey's calliope wagon now belongs to
Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Although previously attempted by others, in 1905 Joseph Ori developed a practical low pressure air calliope. By 1912 he had established a company to hand build air calliopes. By using compressed air instead of steam, the instrument was not only safer, it was more musical. Ori’s instruments were widely used by circuses.

In 1914, Norman Baker of Muscatine, Iowa, founded a company to mass produce a similar compressed air calliope that he called a Calliaphone. These original popular Tangley Calliaphones were produced until 1931 when Baker was forced to leave Muscatine for reasons unrelated to calliopes (see sidebar).

An original Tangley Calliaphone, owned by a resident of Muscatine, Iowa.
Calliope with circus band Large air calliopes were sometimes used along with the circus band.

Man playing air calliope


Smaller air calliopes were used in a variety of venues.

The most popular model of Tangley Calliaphone was a 43 whistle model, CA-43, that used a Type “A” player piano roll. Because there were fewer pipes than holes in the roll, cross coupling was necessary. Although the Calliaphone could use rolls designed for the piano, the sound characteristics of the pipes benefited from special “organ” arrangements. Special “A” rolls with extended perforations that allowed the pipes to sustain their tones longer were produced by the Clark Orchestra Roll Company.

Air calliope in show truck The CA-43 models could also be played by hand on a keyboard and could be purchased built into a car or, for advertising purposes, built into a vehicle that resembled a product.

Other models were made by the Tangley company as well as by other companies, most notably the National Calliope Corporation. The Tangley company designed two models, ST-43 and ST-58, which were advertised as “low volume” for indoor use. The numbers refer to the number of pipes, or “whistles”, and the ST-58 had pipes utilizing all of the music holes in the “A” rolls. However, although there are no production records, very few of the ST-58 models (perhaps two or three remain) were ever built.

Old air calliope closeup Large air calliopes were quite loud. This is a close up of the one in the truck above (seen at Circus World). It served to attract attention and gather an audience when the show arrived in a town.

The Tangley name and Calliaphone production are now owned by Dan Dohman, Miner Company, Kirksville, Missouri.

The company began with the late Dave Miner and was known as Miner Manufacturing Company, Inc. in Donnellson, Iowa. In 2002, Terry and Jan Bender asked Dave to design and build a Tangley Calliaphone ST-58 in a custom show trailer. Dan Dohman, a 22 year employee of Dave's, did much of the construction. Click on the “Our Calliope” button to see photos taken during construction.

Our special Tangley was delivered in August 2002, and is the first Miner/Tangley ST-58. The features of this new Calliaphone, especially its musical brass organ sound, represent a major advance in the design of this traditional American musical intrument.


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Bender Melodies Organ Grinder Just Friends

Forepaugh Steam Calliope

Forepaugh-Sells Circus
Steam Calliope
c. 1904.

Sun Bros Steam Calliope
Sun Brothers Steam Calliope c. 1912.
Woman playing steam calliope
Woman plays a small steam calliope installed in an open automobile.
Who Was Norman Baker…really?

Norman Baker was a colorful entrepreneur who was involved in many ventures besides the Tangley Calliaphone, including his own talk show on his own radio station, the use of prizes and games on the air, radio advertising, patent medicines, a restaurant, a gas station, and in 1929, his own cancer hospital. He liked to wear purple suits and drive purple cars.

He was ultimately accused of medical quackery and lost his counter suit against the AMA in Federal court. After being forced to leave Muscatine, he opened another cancer cure facility in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

in 1940, the US government charged him with seven counts of mail fraud in connection with his cancer cures. He was convicted and spent 3 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary. He died in 1958, at age 75, of cirrhosis of the liver. He was buried in Muscatine with few in attendance.

For more on this aspect of Norman Baker, read Quacks and Crusaders, by Eric Juhnke.