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    

Old Antique Wood Zenith Racetrack Vintage Tube Radio - Restored & Working! Vintage Curved Side Art Deco Zenith Wavemagnet 6d311 Bakelite Tube RadioVintage 1950s Old Antique Charles Eames Zenith Brass Dial Am - Fm Tube Radio Vintage Art Deco Zenith 5-s-319 "the Racetrack" Tube RadioVintage Old Wood Antique Tube Radio Zenith Model 6s527 Gorgeous Radio1942 Zenith Wooden Tube Radio Model 6s-632 Sw Am --works-- See Video! --nice--1938 Zenith 12-s-267 In Good Condition Working No ReserveZenith Model 6d-525 Tabletop Radio, Am, Art Deco, Electronically RestoredVintage Zenith Transoceanic Trans Oceanic R7000 Multiband Radio BeautifulZenith Transoceanic R7000 12 Band 2wkr70 Short Wave/fm/am Radio Very NiceVintage Old 1950s Zenith Mid Century Antique Solid Color Plastic Tube RadioVintage Zenith Transistor Radio/500 Deluxe/eight Transistors PortableZenith Royal "500" Radio W/ Pouch Tubeless TransistorZenith Transoceanic To 3000-1 Portable Receiver Nr Start At $5Vintage Zenith Royal 50 Transistor Am Radio Black Silver Made In Usa Working OldZenith Royal 1000-1 Transoceanic Am Multiband Transistor Radio Vintage 1930's Old Zenith Black Dial Art Deco Depression Era Antique Tube RadioRare Vintage 1937 Zenith Tombstone Type Tube Model 4f133 Ch= 5407 RadioVintage 1942 Zenith 6r683 6 Tube Radio Phonograph Recapped Works WellOld Vintage Tube Wood Table Top Radio Zenith Model 5s320 Original Antique 1939Antique Vintage Zenith Model N122667 Long Distance Tube RadioZenith Transoceanic D7000y Radio Vintage Zenith Trans-oceanic A600 Tube Shortwave Radio World ReceiverZenith H-511 Consol-tone Ebony Black Bakelite Tube Radio From 1951 Working WellZenith Trans-oceanic Royal D7000y Radio Superb ConditionOld Vintage U.s. Made 1950s Zenith Royal 500 7 Transistor RadioVintage Zenith Royal 16 Wallet Transistor Radio Model R16y2Zenith Transoceanic To 1000-1 Portable Receiver Nr Start At $5Zenith Royal 500Vintage 1940's Wood Zenith Model #6s527 Working Table Radio1955 Zenith Am Tube Radio Model T505 Maroon & Brass Retractable Cord & AntennaVintage Zenith Transoceanic Multi-band H500 RadioVintage 1937 Zenith 5r135 Wood Tombstone Cabinet Vintage Zenith Royal 675 Transistor Radio Working.Vintage Zenith Windmill Power Farm Dry Battery Radio Postcard Deluxe Wincharger Zenith Transistor RadioVintage Zenith Model K-412-r Owl Eyes Radio Works GreatVintage Zenith S-22230 Table Radio Tube1960 Zenith Royal 500 E 8 Transitor RadioVintage 1950 Zenith G503-y Flip Front Ac/dc Am Tube Radio With 5g41 ChassisZenith 250 Royal Working Vintage Transistor Radio, Original OwnerZenith Royal Rd7000y Trans Oceanic Weather Service 11 Band RadioZenith Transoceanic Working Radio "g 500" Royalty Vtg Zenith S-58040 Long Distance Am/fm Tube Table Top Radio Works! Model K731Vintage Zenith Radio Parts: Speaker, Bezel And Glass, Tube Shields.Vintage Zenith Trans-oceanic Royal 3000-1 Shortwave Transistor Radio - WorkingVintage Radio Zenith Model Re94y "the Continental"Zenith Trans-oceanic Telescoping Antenna Y600 Brown Tip Leather TransoceanicZenith Royal 200 Transistor RadioUnique Zenith Transoceanic Shortwave R7000-1 Eleven Band RadioVintage 1948 Zenith 4g800 Ac Dc Molded Bakelite Case Tube RadioVintage 1950s Zenith Tube Radio Model R511w Ser No Q-306384Zenith Vintage Circle Of Sound A424w Radio 1970 Mid Century Modern . Wow The SoVintage Zenith Circle Of Sound Solid State Am / Fm Alarm Clock Radio R472Vintage Zenith Tube Radio, Brown/white/gold, Plastic, Used, Not Working,