In the age of steam, the steam calliope was particularly used on riverboats and in circuses. In both cases, a steam supply was already available for other purposes. Riverboats supplied steam from their propulsion boilers. Circus calliopes were sometimes installed in steam-drive carousels, or supplied with steam from a traction engine. The traction engine could also supply electric power for lighting, and tow the calliope in the circus parade, where it traditionally came last. Other circus calliopes were self-contained, mounted on a carved, painted and gilded wagon pulled by horses, but the presence of other steam boilers in the circus meant that fuel and expertise to run the boiler were readily available. Steam instruments often had keyboards made from brass. This was in part to resist the heat and moisture of the steam, but also for the golden shine of the highly polished keys.
Calliopes can be played by a player at a keyboard or mechanically. Mechanical operation may be by a drum similar to a music box drum, or by a roll similar to that of a player piano. Some instruments have both a keyboard and a mechanism for automated operation, others only one or the other. Some calliopes can also be played via a MIDI interface.
The whistles of a calliope are tuned to a chromatic scale, although this process is difficult and must be repeated often to maintain quality sound. Since the pitch of each note is largely affected by the temperature of the steam, accurate tuning is nearly impossible; however, the off-pitch notes (particularly in the upper register) have become something of a trademark of the steam calliope. A calliope may have anywhere from 25 to 67 whistles, but 32 is traditional for a steam calliope.
Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts patented the calliope on October 9, 1855 though his design echos previous concepts, such as an 1832 instrument called a steam trumpet, later known as a train whistle. In 1851, William Hoyt of Dupont, Indiana claimed to have conceived of a device similar to Stoddard's calliope, but he never patented it. Later, an employee of Stoddard's American Music, Arthur S. Denny, attempted to market an "Improved Kalliope" in Europe, but it did not catch on. In 1859, he demonstrated this instrument in Crystal Palace, London. Unlike other calliopes before or since, Denny's Improved Kalliope let the player control the steam pressure, and therefore the volume of the music, while playing.
While Stoddard originally intended the calliope to replace bells at churches, it found its way onto riverboats during the paddlewheel era. While only a small number of working steamboats still exist, each has a steam calliope. These boats include the Delta Queen, the Belle of Louisville, and President. Their calliopes are played regularly on river excursions. Many surviving calliopes were built by Thomas J. Nichol, Cincinnati, Ohio, who built calliopes from 1890 until 1932. The Thomas J. Nichol calliopes featured rolled sheet copper (as used in roofing) for the resonant tube (the bell) of the whistle, lending a sweeter tone than cast bronze or brass, which were the usual materials for steam whistles of the day. David Morecraft pioneered a resurgence in the building of authentic steam calliopes of the Thomas J. Nichol style beginning in 1985 in Peru, Indiana. He is still in business today—the last commercial authentic steam calliope builder in the world. These calliopes are featured in Peru's annual Circus City Parade.
Stoddard's original calliope was attached to a metal roller set with pins in the manner familiar to Stoddard from the contemporary clockwork music box. The pins on the roller opened valves that admitted steam into the whistles. Later, Stoddard replaced the cylinder with a keyboard, so that the calliope could be played like an organ.
Starting in the 1900s, calliopes began using music rolls instead of a live musician. The music roll operated in a similar manner to a piano roll in a player piano, mechanically operating the keys. Many of these mechanical calliopes retained keyboards, allowing a live musician to play them if needed. During this period, compressed air began to replace steam as the vehicle of producing sound.
Most calliopes disappeared in the mid-20th century, as steam power was replaced with other power sources. Without the demand for technicians that mines and railroads supplied, no support was available to keep boilers running. Only a few calliopes have survived, and these are rarely played.