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    

Vintage 1930's Zenith Beehive Vacuum Tube Bakelite Radio R880561 - - Works!! Zenith Tombstone RadioVintage 1938 Zenith Black Face 12 Vacuum Tube Shutter Dial Radio Chassis 12s267Vintage Zenith Bakelite Am/fm Tube Radio Model G724-restoredZenith 5s29 Radio 1936Zenith Walton 12s232 8 Inch Radio Speaker 49ab346 670 Ohm 12s445 10s443Vintage 1941 Zenith Wood Table Radio Model 6d539 For Display Or RestorationZenith C845y Vintage Wood Cabinet Hifi Am/fm Tube Radio 1959 Ebony Beauty WorksOld Antique Wood Zenith Vintage Tube Radio - Restored & Working Black Dial Old Zenith A600l Brown Leather Trans-oceanic Wave Shortwave Radio Chassis 6a41 Zenith Antique Radio, Vintage. Tube.Vintage Art Deco Model 9-s-324 Zenith Black Dial Tube RadioVintage Old 1950s Antique Rare Color Am-fm Zenith Mid Century Retro Clock Radio300+ Vtg Lot Of Antique Tube Radio Collection- Zenith Capehart Philco Victor RcaZenith Model 6d425, Art Deco Design Radio From 1940, Restored & WorkingVintage Zenith Trans Ocean Deluxe Wavemagnet Portable Short Wave Tube Radio.Vtg 1950s Zenith H511w Consol-tone Bakelite Tube Radio - Parts/repairZenith Transoceanic A600l Radio With 6a41 Chassis For Parts Or RepairVintage 1939 Zenith 5s319 Fully Mechanically And Electrically RestoredVintage Zenith Trans-oceanic Wave-magnet Short Wave Radio Model Y-600Vintage Zenith Transoceanic 8g005yt Tube Am/sw Radio Untested Restoration RepairVintage Old 50s Zenith Mid Century Antique Very Rare Color Plastic Tube RadioVintage Zenith Long Distance Royal "500" Deluxe Transistor Radio W. Leather CaseRare Zenith Transoceanic R520a/urr RadioVintage Zenith Transoceanic Royal D7000y Radio.Vintage 1937 Zenith 5j255 Tube Radio Sw Tombstone 5-j-255 Untested 6v / 110vWorking Zenith Trans-oceanic Tube Radio Wavemagnet H500Vintage Zenith X323 Tube Radio Fm Wooden Case Works GreatHuge Pile Mix Vibrator F/ Old Ham Car Tube Radio Military Receiver Philco ZenithZenith Trans-oceanic A600 "wave Magnet" Am/fm/shortwave Radio For Parts/repairWorking Zenith Consol-tone Wood Tube Radio Model 6d2615 Gravestone Parts Restore1949 Zenith Am & Fm Radio Model 7h820z. Looks And Plays Great!Zenith Ebony Bakelite Radio Original Restored 5 Tube Am M-g510 C-1949 Pristine!!Vintage 1940 Zenith 7s529 Fully Mechanically And Electrically RestoredVintage Zenith H-500 Trans-oceanic Transoceanic Radio Wave Magnet - Untested Zenith Radio Black Dial Clock ~ 10" Diameter ~ Octogon Wood Frame ~ Glass CoverAntique Zenith Multi Band Radio 7s634r WorksZenith Trans Oceanic Portable Radio1951 Zenith Model H724z Working Antique Vacuum Tube Bakelite Am-fm RadioVintage Zenith K731 Am/fm Long Distance Radio ~ Excellent Condition ~ Working Vintage 1959-62 Zenith Trans-oceanic B600 Wave Magnet Radio Transoceanic WorksVintage 1952 Zenith J615w White Radio Needs Cord Untested Tube RadioVintage Antique 1951 Zenith Tube Radio High Fidelity S-53555 WorksVintage Portable Zenith S-18656 Radio For Parts Or Repair1959 Zenith Am Clock Radio Model B514v. Beautiful Original Pink Cabinet! Works!Zenith Transoceanic 3000-1 Excellent Condition Works Well Vintage Portable Zenith Universal Tube Radio Model 6g601m WavemagnetSet Or Four (4) Zenith Radio Chassis Bolts And Springs 10s669 Etc.Vintage Zenith Universal Portable Model G503 Radio - Parts Or RestoreWorking Exceptional Condition Zenith Royal 3000-1 Trans-oceanic Shortwave Radio Vintage Art Deco Model 9-s-324 Zenith Black Dial Tube RadioVintage Zenith Radio Part Front Faceplate For 41 Model 12s568e W/ Glass & ScrewsVintage 1959 Zenith Trans-oceanic B600 Wave Magnet Radio Transoceanic WorksAntique Zenith Tube Radio Bakelite Model H 511 Works Racetrack Deco ConsoltoneZenith R7000 Trans-oceanic Radio-operating Guide 104 PagesNice Vintage Zenith Royal D- 7000- Y Trans- Ocenanic Multi- Band Radio Vintage Zenith Bakelite Tube Radio Model H-615 Retro Modern Style WorkingVintage Zenith Radio Part 3 Piece Set Tuning Knobs Trio For 1941 Model 12s568e Old Vintage Zenith High Fidelity Walnut Case RadioZenith Model 7r887 Radio Cobras Record Player Tube Floor Console Vintage