Exploring Albany's inglorious past and dubious future

Thomas Edison visits Albany to promote his phonograph.

albany tone test

Thomas A. Edison visited Chancellor Hall on a January night in 1920 to give an invited audience a demonstration of his New Edison phonograph and flat Diamond Discs. For ten years, from 1915-1925, Edison recording artists toured the country presenting “tone tests.” In them, a performer would sing along to their own record, and then stop singing midway; the audience – if you believe all the ads – would be astounded that it could not tell the difference between the live performance and the phonograph record.

edison tone test

A 1919 “tone test” captivated 6,000 listeners at the State Armory. Edison did not personally present this event.

Tone tests toured the country and the world. Locally, they took place in Troy, Schenectady, and Mechanicville, but the Albany tone test was the only one to have Edison in attendance (the vocalist was Marie Morrisey). Per the ad (in case you can’t read it), “The entire audience gasped as it slowly realized that it had been unable to distinguish between Miss Morrissey’s voice and the RE-CREATION of that voice by the New Edison.”

By 1920, most of the public was familiar with tinny phonograph cylinders. Edison had spent a lot of time and effort into his flat records, their longer playing time, and their increased fidelity (despite it still being an entirely acoustic medium), so it is possible that people might experience them as a giant leap in realism – but not being able to tell them apart from a live performance? I’m skeptical. I’ve heard Edison Diamond Discs, and I think the wild success of these “tone tests” was theatrics evoking a willingness to believe.

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