(William Mason, 1795)

The learned Benedictine quotes also another passage on this subject from William of Malmsbury, which I think curious enough to translate. “By the violence of hot water, the wind coming out fills the whole cavity of the instrument, which, from several apertures passing through brass pipes, sends forth musical noises.”*

I here suspect, that by the word Ventus the Monk meant steam; because the sound was produced by hot water, Aqua calefacta violentia, and if so, we have a new purpose, to which the ingenious Steam Engineers of the present time may, if they please, employ it. And who knows but a certain noble mechanic, when he has navigated his ship with it, may place a steam Organ upon the poop and play ça ira upon it with peculiar propriety?

*Aquae calefactae violentia ventus emergens implet concavitatem barbiti, et per multiforatiles transitus aeneae fistulae modulatos clamores emittunt. William of Malmsbury

As the industrial revolution was taking off in England, William Mason read the monk William of Malmsbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (1125) and discovered in its pages a novel instrument: the steam organ. Malmsbury described an organ built in a church at Rheims c. 1000 AD by the Benedictine abbot Gerbert as a demonstration of his scientific knowledge. With steam on the brain, Mason interpreted Malmsbury’s “aqua calefacta violentia” as boiling water sending steam through the organ’s pipes. However, no other evidence for a medieval steam organ survives, and the organ at Rheims was likely a hydraulic organ using water power to force air through its pipes.
As often happened, with the steam organ the imaginary and real soon intersected.  In 1838, the Reverend James Birkett of Ovinsham, England built a steam organ with eight pipes (covering an octave) to be played at a railway grand opening.  In 1845, the American Joshua C. Stoddard re-invented the instrument, designing a mechanical version with pinned cylinder rather than keyboard. Stoddard called his steam organ the calliope, and it quickly became a favorite on showboats travelling the Mississippi and other major rivers – much as Mason imagined.
Image: Q. David Bowers, “Calliope,” Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments
Text: William Mason, “Essays on Church Music,” The Works of William Mason, vol. 3 (London: W. Bulmer, 1811)