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 Walton Wood Tube Radio Shuttle Dial Working Play Very Good Zenith 12s475 Console RadioVintage 1935 Zenith Model 809 Art Deco Chrome Front Grille Tombstone Tube RadioZenith 9s262 Console RadioBeautiful 1938 Prewar Zenith Classic Icon! Bakelite Tube Radio * Black Dial Gem!Antique Zenith Long Distance Radio Standard (mc Kc) & Internat'l (mc) BroadcastRare Zenith "race Track Dial" Model 5s319 Tube Radio 1937Antique Zenith 6s527 Am & Short-wave Wood Tube Table Radio - Plays - Ca 1941Vintage Zenith 5s-319 Race Track Radio, Works.Zenith 8s463 Console Radio Antique Wooden Tombstone Zenith RadioArt Deco Zenith Oval Racetrack 5-s-320 Wooden Tube Radio From 1939 €Restored Antique Vintage Zenith 6d030 Wood Deco Tube Radio Works Perfect!1938 Zenith 6s-229 Black Dial Tombstone Radio. Original Finish,Art Deco Zenith Wood 6d525 From 1941- Ingraham Cabinet Radio- Wooden Grill-worksZenith 1938 Small Console RadioAntique Zenith Trans-oceanic Y600 Vintage Tube Radio Working1934 Zenith Cathedral Tabletop Tube Radio Model #8051936 Zenith Black Dial Radio Chassis For 9s-30, 9s-54 & 9s-55 (chassis 5903).1937 Zenith 12-u-159 Magnificent Unrestored Radio Zenith Model 705 ~ 1933 ~ Mantel Style Am Radio- Original ConditionVintage 1950 Zenith G-516w "owl Eyes" Vacuum Tube Clock RadioVintage Zenith Model 6d629, 30 Watts, Am Radio - Part Way RestoredVintage Zenith Consol-tone Model # 6d2615 Tube RadioVery Nice Zenith Trans-oceanic Fm-am Multiband Royal 3000-1Zenith Trans-oceanic R7000 Chassis 2wmr70 Dial Clicks 12 Band For Parts RestoreVintage 1950 Zenith Old Shortwave Analog Mid Century Working Transoceanic RadioOriginal Rare Zenith 6t5 Tuning Eye For 1938 Tube Radio, Walton Tombstone, WorksZenith Trans-oceanic Royal D7000y RadioOld Fashioned Zenith Table Radio In Working ConditionZenith Radio 5 R 316 1938 Deco Radio Tube Wood RadioVintage Old Early 1951 Classic Zenith Bakelite Antique Telechron Clock RadioVintage Zenith Tube Radio Part 1930's Lightning Bolt KnobZenith Transoceanic Royal 3000-1 W/original Ac/adapter Working Great Lqqk!!!Zenith Radio Z512fZenith 5-r-312 Beehive,vintage Bakelite Tube Radio (circa 1939) !!Vintage Zenith Console Knob Set And Band Switch Lever Fits Model 10-s-464 & MoreVintage 1950s Old Antique Mid Century Zenith Etc. Transistor Radio Blowout SaleZenith R511f Kelly Green Tube Radio Gets Stations Hums Loudly Very Nice CaseZenith Trans-oceanic Antique RadioZenith Radio Z512yZenith, Wave Magnet , Trans Oceanic, RadioVintage 1950s Old Classic Zenith & Still Playing Antique Am - Fm Tube RadioVintage Zenith Console 10 Inch Electromagnet Type Radio Speaker Model 10-s-464Vintage Zenith Tube Radio 6d030z Zenith Trans-oceanic Multiband Radio 8g005tz1y Worldwide Shortwave & Am 1946-194L@@k Vintage Zenith Am/fm Tube Radio Model X334 In Excellent Working ConditionZenith Speaker With Acoustic Adapter 49-148ab 12" For 9s262Old Fashioned Zenith Table Radio In Working ConditionZenith Antique RadioVintage Zenith Trans Oceanic Wave Magnet Tube Radio Model Y600 Original WorksZenith Radio F510bVintage 1950 Zenith Model G 516w White Clock RadioVintage Working Zenith Trans-oceanic G-500 Short Wave Portable Radio Rare!Original Antique Bakelite Zenith Am/fm Radio Art Deco Parts/repairAntique Zenith Vintage Bakelite Tube Radio Not Working #h7822Vintage Zenith Royal Eighty Five 85 Transistor Radio-works! Takes Two "aa" BattsVintage Zenith Trans-oceanic With Wave Magnet, Working Radio, Nice Condition1959 Zenith Deluxe Royal 755 G Am Transistor Radio Beautiful Top Grain Cowhide!Vintage Zenith Z-985 Battery