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Harmony in Steam
Harmony in Steam
from Esso Oilways  for September 1956, reprinted in
Player Piano Treasury, by Harvey N. Roehl, Vestal Press (N.Y.) 1961

    An expectant and excited group of passengers hurried aboard a train in Worcester, Mass. on the afternoon of July 4, 1856. The train was a holiday excursion bound for Fitchburg, Mass. The excitement was unusual even for a holiday because the trip was to feature a demonstration of the American Steam Piano Company's steam calliope. The huge instrument was mounted on wheels and attached to the rear of the train. Passengers settled in the seats and waited eagerly for the first notes.

    At 3 o'clock a young girl pressed down a key, releasing a jet of steam that gushed forth through a whistle and resounded off the distant hills. It was the first note of "Old Dan Tucker," and on its signal, the train began its journey. Throughout the journey the steam calliope rendered traditional favorites, its booming voice echoing through the New England countryside. Farmers and shop workers dropped their tolls and came running to hear. It was a successful excursion, and marked the birth of an instrument that has thrilled and entertained Americans of all ages.

    But perhaps the most thrilled of all was the calliope's inventor, Joshua C. Stoddard. His invention was a success and the girl who played the calliope on the trip was his 7-year-old daughter, Jennie.  But in a short time his invention became the source of unhappiness to him.  His parents were ashamed of the machine their son had built because the considered it useless and Worcester soon banned its playing with within the city limits because of excessive noise.  In later years, although calliopes could be found throughout the U.S., Stoddard did not earn any money from them.

   Joshua C. Stoddard was born on his father's farm in Pawlet, Vt., on August 26, 1814.  His father sent him to Pawlet Academy for formal schooling and trained him in farming at home.  Joshua became interested in bees that his father raised on the farm, and soon became an enthusiastic beekeeper, a vocation that he worked at all his life.

    It was while working on his father's farm that young Stoddard heard a train whistle for the first time.  Every time he heard a train approach he would listen attentively for the whistle.  He soon noticed that different whistles produced different tones.  To the inquisitive youth this was fascinating, and later served as the basis for his idea for a steam calliope.
  Young Stoddard lived with his parents until January 23, 1845, when he married Lucy Maria Hersey and moved to Worcester.  The Stoddards lived in Worcester for 40 years and had 6 children; 5 boys and a girl.  Stoddard made his money from an apiary while devoting his spare time to various inventions.  His first successful invention was the calliope, which he completed a few years after his marriage.

    The first instrument consisted of 15 whistles, of graduated sizes, 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 so arranged that when the cylinder revolved, they pressed the valves and blew the whistles in proper sequence. The different shapes enabled the operator to play notes of varying length. Later, Stoddard replaced the cylinder with a keyboard. Wires running from the keys to the valves enabled the operator to play the instrument like a piano.

    The first showing of the calliope -- a keyboard version -- took place on July 4, 1855 on Worcester Common.  While Stoddard stoked the wood fire to maintain the pressure, his daughter Jennie played such tunes as "Yankee Doodle" and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."  The showing was a success, and Stoddard had his instrument patented in October of the same year.

    Stoddard founded the American Steam Piano Company with financial backing from Worcester industrialists.  Although the calliope enjoyed enthusiastic reception by the public, Stoddard was inept in handling the business.  Soon, one of the company's financial backers, Henry A. Deny, began to take control from Stoddard.  Within 5 years after the founding of the company, Stoddard was removed and Deny became president.  Deny not only headed the company, but claimed the invention as his own.
  Under Deny, the company prospered.  Steam calliopes became popular on river steamships, in fairs, parades, amusement parks and circuses all over the country.  Air-operated models are still found in circuses today, besides having become standard equipment on carousels.

    After he lost control of his company, Stoddard returned to farming and beekeeping.  Still inventive, he patented a successful hay rake in 1879 and a fire escape in 1884.  In 1901 he invented a fruit-paring machine, but it was not successful.  He died on April 4, 1902 in Springfield, Mass., bereft of reward -- save the satisfaction of accomplishment from his idea of making harmony in steam.

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This page last updated Sun Jun 7 15:08:12 PDT 1998

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