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    

Antique Zenith Model 7s323 Salesman Sample Wood Tube Radio Works Very Rare #bm54Zenith 12s265 Console RadioSuperb Art Deco Zenith H511 Consoltone Bakelite Valve Radio 1951Vintage Old 50s Gem Mint Zenith Mid Century Multiband Antique Transoceanic RadioZenith 5-s-319Old 1937 Wood Zenith Model 5s 119 Tube Radio Restore / Parts Black Dial Zenith Transoceanic Shortwave R7000-2 12 Band 2wmr70 - Works / GuaranteedZenith Wood Tube RadioAdorable Vintage 1954 Zenith Table Tube Am Radio Model R511r Upgraged WorksVintage Old 1950s Zenith " Owl Eye " Rare Color Antique Bakelite Tube RadioZenith Model H511 Antique Bakelite Tube Radio From 1951 Serviced & Working Well Rare 1930's? Zenith Console Tube Radio Model 430 Superheterodyne Long Distance 1922 Zenith 2-m Amplifier Vintage 1950s Antique Rare Unique Gem Mint Zenith Mid Century Radio Best Of BestBeautiful Vintage Zenith Bakelite Am/fm Tube Radio Model 7h820uz-restoredZenith 10 Tube 10s464 Console In Excellent Restored Condition, Works Beautifully Zenith 3 Band Wood Tube RadioStunning Vintage Zenith Y723 “beautiful!” Am/fm Tube Radio Original!Rare Antique Vintage Zenith Armstrong Tube Bakelite Radio 7c01 Works Great Zenith Am/fm Tube RadioAntique 1930's Zenith Am & Shortwave Bands Radio Model 6j230 6v Batt. /117v A.c.Vintage 1950s Awesome Zenith Atomic Retro Old Antique Mid Century Clock RadioVintage 1950s Ebony Zenith Antique Mid Century Old Owl Eye Transistor RadioZenith Model G730w ~ Vintage 1950's Am Fm Tube Radio ~ Plays & Works Good ~ NiceZenith Deluxe Model K518 ~ Owl Eyes ~ Vintage 1950's Tube Type Clock Radio ~ WowVintage Antique Zenith Transoceanic & Radio Bakelite Headphones , Tested & WorksZenith Radio Table Top Phonograph Catalog Brochure 19381955 56 Rare Zenith Royal 500 Ab Handwired With Vernier Tuning Vintage Zenith Trans-oceanic Wave-magnet Shortwave Tube RadioVintage Zenith Flip Face Radio The Royalty Of RadioZenith Model H725 Bakelite Cabinet Am/fm Tube Radio From 1953 Serviced & WorkingZenith Transoceanic Royal D7000y Vintage Multiband Shortwave Radio No ReserveVintage Zenith Radio Tombstone 1930's? Not Working For Parts? For Resto?Vintage Zenith RadioZenith 8g005yt Trans-oceanic Short Wave Radio W/ Magnet BoosterVintage Circa 1952 Zenith Tube RadioVintage Zenith Royal 500 Tubless Transistor Radio Black Owl #bm49Vintage Zenith Consoltone Radio 5 Tubes, Brown Bakelite, H-511 1951 Works1952 Zenith Super Trans Oceanic Radio Model H500 And ManualsVintage Working 4 Aa Bat Zenith All Transistor Royal 265 Tan Case Portable RadioZenith Trans Oceanic Royal 1000 Vintage Zenith All Transistor 8 Band RadioZenith Radio Table Top Phonograph Catalog Brochure 1939Sylvania 50a1 Ballast Vacuum Tube - Zenith Transoceanic Regulator - Nos - NibZenith Model 52 Loop Antenna W/complete MechanismVintage Zenith Tube Radio Model 5-s-119, Parts,dial Face,station Selector, TunerZenith 5-s-127 Tombstone Tube Radio (parts)Vtg 1940's Zenith Trans Oceanic Clipper Tube Radio 8g005yt 8g005 ShortwaveZenith Transoceanic 8g005ytZenith Transoceanic Royal 1000 Multiband Radio Needs Tlc Or For Parts3 Real Nice Antique Vintage Bakelite Knobs For Rca Zenith Philco Tube RadiosVery Nice Zenith Royal 3000-1 Am Fm Sw Multiband Transoceanic Radio. No Reserve!Vintage Zenith Trans Oceanic Shortwave Radio Model T600 - Untested Zenith Model C519l ~ Vintage 1960 Am Tube Clock Radio ~ Looks Great And WorksVintage Zenith Long Distance Radio Model S-58040 Nice Working Condition AntiqueVintage Zenith Am/fm Tube Table Radio, Mahogany Case, Model G738? Or 6? Or0?Vintage Zenith Portable Model Rf42 Am Fm Radio ~ Battery Or Electric ~ It WorksZenith Royal 16 Korea Transistor Am Billfold Radio Parts Or RepairVintage Zenith Trans-oceanic Royal 1000-d Shortwave Radio Receiver ~ Works Very Rare - Vintage Zenith H 845 Wood Cabinet Tube Radio - Tested - Works H845Vintage Zenith Table Top Tube Radio Model G725