The company known today as Zenith was founded at a kitchen table in Chicago in 1918 by Karl Hassel and Ralph H. G. Mathews. In 1919, Hassel and Mathews moved their operations into a 14-by-18-foot garage, where they formed the Chicago Radio Laboratory (CRL). They used half of the garage to make hand-engraved radios out of Bakelite and the other half for their amateur radio station, 9ZN.

That same year, the Chicago Radio Laboratory began placing advertisements for its products in “QST,” the American Radio Relay League’s Magazine. One of CRL’s employees suggested that 9ZN be listed with a small “ith” after it. 9ZNith soon became Z-Nith.

In 1921, CRL moved into a 3,000-square-foot factory in Chicago. In early 1922, the company was making five radios each week; by June of that year, it was making 50 per week. With investment money from Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., Hassel and Mathews founded the Zenith Radio Corporation in 1923 as a marketing division for CRL. A few years later, the two merged and both manufactured and advertised under the Zenith name.

Zenith quickly became known as an innovator. It released the first portable radio in 1924, followed two years later by the first radio that operated entirely on household electricity. In 1927, Zenith introduced the first radio with push-button tuning, and in 1940 it broadcast the first FM radio station in the Midwest. In fact, Zenith co-invented the FM stereo broadcast system, which was authorized by the FCC in 1961.

Zenith expanded throughout the 1920s. In 1927, the company debuted its now-famous slogan, “The Quality Goes in before the Name Goes On.” The company also helped found the Consumer Electronics Association, and Zenith’s CEO was the first president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

With the coming of the Depression, Zenith was forced to change its focus from high-quality radios to more affordable ones. Following the lead of Philco’s Baby Grand, Zenith released its own cathedral radio, the moderately successful Zenette Model L, in 1931. Like many of Zenith’s other radios of that era, the Zenette featured an Art Deco design.

Zenith also produced chairside and table models, many of which had a handle on top to make them even more portable. The company’s 500H was considered the highest-quality portable...

During World War II, Zenith made bomb fuses and other devices for the government. Afterward, the company shifted gears and devoted most of its attention to televisions. Here, too, Zenith became an innovator, releasing the first wireless remotes for TV in 1955 (the Flash-Matic) and 1956 (the Space Command).

Collectors of Zenith radios can use model numbers to help identify a radio’s model year. From 1930 to 1935, each radio had a two- or three-digit model number; in general, larger number models were made later in this five-year stretch.

Starting in 1936, Zenith’s radios had a much more descriptive six-digit model number. The 6-S-646 is a good example of the typical format. The first 6 indicates the type of vacuum tubes in the unit (this figure could be one or two digits). The S indicates the capabilities of the model; D, for example, meant the model had AC/DC power and only received the broadcast band, whereas S usually meant that the radio was AC-powered and also received one shortwave band.

The first number of the last three digits indicates the model year. The number 1 corresponded to 1937 model radios, 2 corresponded to 1938, and so on (if this number was missing, that indicated a 1936 model year). Finally, the last two digits indicated how deluxe the model was, with lower number models generally having fewer features than models with higher numbers.

In 1950, Zenith switched to a four-digit model-number system. The first letter indicated the model year, with G corresponding to 1950, H corresponding to 1951, and so on. The three digits afterward were somewhat arbitrary.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Zenith Stratosphere: Behind The Dial

Zenith Stratosphere: Behind The Dial

David Wilson’s handsome site is obsessed with Zenith's top-of-the-line 1934 console radio, which cost a whopping … [read review or visit site]

Jim's Antique Radio Museum

Jim's Antique Radio Museum

Jim Tripp's showcase of radios from the 1920s to late 1950s, organized by style and theme (wood, console, plastic, … [read review or visit site]

The Radio Attic's Archives

The Radio Attic's Archives

This photo gallery of over 7800 vintage radios, categorized by manufacturer and model number, is a group effort wit… [read review or visit site]

Alan Voorhees' reference resource for vintage radio collectors includes a photo gallery, article library, PDF archi… [read review or visit site]

This vast archive and community of radio collectors features over 120,000 radio model listings and 350,000 photos a… [read review or visit site]

Phil's Old Radios

Phil's Old Radios

This extensive collection of antique radios includes beautiful photos and detailed historical descriptions. The sit… [read review or visit site]

John Pelham's collection of wood and plastic radios from the 1930's and 40's. What sets this site apart is the deta… [read review or visit site]



Steve Erenberg's extremely wacky and well-done collection of vintage mad-scientist devices and contraptions. Writte… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1938 Zenith 12-s-265 Antique Zenith Shortwave Radio - Beauty In Pittsburgh Pa.Old Vintage Zenith Console Black Shutter Dial Radio Zenith 1936 Tube Farm Radio Model 1936~ Vintage Estate FindVintage 50s Old Zenith Brass Symphony Hall Eames Design Am - Fm Tube Radio L@@kZenith R7000-2 Trans Oceanic Portable Shortwave Radio - Nice - No ReserveVintage 1939 Old Zenith Art Deco Depression Era Antique Bakelite Tube Radio 1937 Zenith Tabletop Tube Radio Model #6-d-219Vintage Old Wood Antique Tube Radio Zenith Model 6s527 Very Pretty Radio1955 Zenith Royal 800 Transistor Radio Rare Handwired & Works!Zenith Model 6-s-52,1936 Floor Model Radio, Wood Tuning Knobs, Set Of 4Lot 51 Vintage Bakelite Plastic Deco Radio Knobs Arvin Philco Delco Zenith RcaZenith 1946 Trans-oceanic Radio Model 8g005yt ~ Vintage Estate Find1963 Zenith Trans-oceanic Royal 3000-1 9 Band Fm Mw Lw & 6 X Short Wave RadioVintage Zenith Am/fm Multiband Trans-oceanic Radio Model 3000-1 Nr Nib?Zenith Royal 7000y Trans-oceanic Shortwave Radio-multiband Radio W Box WorksZenith " Boomerang " Dial Table Radio, 1942, Working Condition, 6-d-26151955 Zenith Royal 500 Tubeless Transistor Radio Translucent Red W Carry BagLot 52 Vintage Bakelite Plastic Deco Radio Knobs Arvin Philco Delco Zenith Rca1940’s Zenith Wood Case Radio Model 6d030 ~ Vintage Estate FindZenith Bakelite Am-fm Late 40s RadioVtg (1948) Zenith 7h820uz Bakelite Tube Radio ~ Dual-band Fm ~ Beautiful!!Zenith Royal 500d Transistor RadioVtg (1938) 6-s-330 Zenith Tombstone Black Dial Tube Radio~ Beautiful CabinetStunning 1946 Zenith Model 6 D30, Bc 6 Tube Radio.1929 Zenith Tube Radio Model 11e ~ Vintage Estate FindSharp Looking Vintage Zenith Am Tube Radio Model 6d029-restoredVintage Zenith Royal 500 Deluxe Tubeless All Transistor RadioListen! Working 1948 Zenith 7h820 Bakelite Am/fm 3-band Radio "armstrong System"Vtg (1946) **working** Zenith Consoltone 5d011 Bakelite Tube Radio ~ Beautiful!!Zenith Royal 500 Portable Vintage Transistor RadioZenith Royal 500 White Transistor Radio Chassis 8at40z2 Vintage Zenith 6s632 Shortwave/broadcast RadioZenith Radio Model 6d 525 "the Toaster"Vtg (1937) 6-s-223 Zenith Black Dial Tube Radio ~ Beautiful CabinetOutstanding Vintage Zenith Bakelite Am/fm Tube Radio Model R723-restoredZenith Transoceanic D7000y Works ExcellentZenith Tube Radio (model 5-d-2611) ***restored***Zenith All Transistor Trans Oceanic Royal 3000-1 Radio W/ Book And Ac Power PackVintage Zenith Royal 500 Owl Eyes Transistor RadioVintage Zenith Royal 50 Transistor Radio With Box, Earphones Case & Papers WorksZenith Transoceanic Radio Model Y600Vintage Zenith Royal Handhelp Radios; 300, 500, 500 (3)Vintage Art Deco Black Bakelite Zenith S19471 Telechron Clock Radio Working Zenith Antique Brown Bakelite Radio--nice Model # 6d612, 6d-612Ac Adapter For Zenith Transoceanic Original 12 Volt Power Supply Hard To FindVintage Zenith Royal 200 Am Salmon Pink 1950s Transistor RadioVintage Old 1950s Mid Century Zenith Royal 500-h Oval Speaker Transistor RadioVintage Zenith Deluxe Royal 755 Radio Wavemagnet Works Great Excellent ConditionG516w Vintage Retro Zenith Owl Face Tube Bakelite Am Clock Radio G516 AntiqueZenith Trans-oceanic Royal Model 3000-1 Fm/am Multiband Transistor Radio VintageVintage Zenith 4g903 Tip Top Tube Radio, Wavemagnet, Flip Dial, Works!!!Vintage Zenith Royal 1000 Six Band Radio Rg1000y Solid StateVintage 1940s 50s Zenith Telephone Phone Magnet Hearing Aid Mint Nos Vtg OldVintage Clock Radio Zenith Owl Eyes Telechron Deluxe Bakelite Zenith Radio SpeakerZenith Zenette Working Antique Zenith Model K-731 Vintage Pre 1960s Working RadioVintage 1946 Zenith Consoltone Tube Radio Model - Mid-century Retro BakeliteZenith Clock Radio A.m.,s16776, Chassis 5g03, Dirty And Rough, But Works!Vintage Zenith H615 Bakelite Tube Radio