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]

AntiqueRadios.com

AntiqueRadios.com

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

Radiomuseum.org

Radiomuseum.org

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]

Radiophile.com

Radiophile.com

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]

Radio-Guy

Radio-Guy

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 1937 Old Zenith Classic Black Dial Art Deco Mid Century Wood Tube RadioOld Antique Wood Zenith Vintage Tube Radio -restored Working Art Deco Black DialVintage Zenith 5-s-327 5s327 Tombstone Table Radio For RestorationZenith Console Radio 12-u-158 C 1937 Antique Vintage Zenith Tombstone 4v31 Deco Old 1930's Tube Radio - Works PerfectEarly 1923 Zenith Four Tube Radio Model 4-r With HeadphonesAntique Zenith Radio 1936 12 A58 Stratosphere With Cd Player Beautiful Restored 1938 Vintage Zenith Model 6j230 Tombstone Radio Nice!Antique Zenith Am Pancake Radio RestoredClassic Zenith "race Track" Am Radio 1951 Model H511 Playing & Restored!Zenith Clock Radio "atomic" Stunner Burgundy Color M-c-520 Original Working!!Antique Zenith Walton Radio 1937 Restored With Cd PlayerVintage 1950s Old Zenith " Split Face " Am -fm Bakelite Radio ,large Tuning FaceBeautiful Vintage Zenith Tube Radio Model 7s633 Works Great RestoredExceptional Royal 500 Coral Pink Zenith Transistor Radio W/ Orig. Case (i#217) Vintage Art Deco Zenith Pancake Bakelite Tube Radio 6d516Vtg/antique Zenith 5r312 Push Button/tube Radio For Parts/restoration-art DecoAntique Vintage 1942 Zenith Art Deco Table Radio Model 6s632 6-s-632 ExcellentVintage 1940's Zenith Console Shutter Dial Radio Chassis Model 12-s-568Rare Zenith Deluxe Royal 41 Transistor Radio ~ Working Non-solar Version Of 56-gVintage 1960 Zenith Trans-symphony Royal 2000 Antique Am/fm Portable RadioAntique Zenith Walton Radio 1937 Restored With Cd Player1950's Zenith ~ Antique Bakelite Am Tube Radio & Alarm ~ Classic 50's Owl Stying1939 Zenith 5g401 Beach Radio/picnic PortableAntique Zenith Royal 500 Deluxe Transistor Radio Antique Zenith Radio 1936 12 A58 Stratosphere With Cd Player Old Vintage Metal Box Zenith Tube Car Radio Model 462Zenith Chairside Shutter-dial Barn Find For Parts Or RestorationAntique Vintage Zenith Wood Table Top Desk Deco Tube Radio Model 6d629 - WorksZenith Clock Radio Owl Eyes Model X514 Vintage Zenith Model G730 Am Fm Tube Radio Works 1950sZenith Tube Radio - Model 5-d-611 - Radio WorksVintage Restored 1948 Zenith 8g005ytz1 Transoceanic Antique Tube RadioY600 Zenith Trans-oceanic Wave Magnet Shortwave Radio Vintage Zenith Deluxe Royal 500 8 Transistor Radio. WorksZenith Royal 3000-1 Transoceanic Am/fm Multiband Wavemagnet RadioVintage Zenith Portable Tube Radio Flip Up Dial 5g41 Tested Still Works NrOld Vintage Zenith Royal 3000-1 Transoceanic Radio PartsVintage Zenith Trans-oceanic Clipper Radio Portable Broadcast Shortwave Zenith Royal 500 Not WorkingZenith Radio Dial Bezels For 511 Racetrack Radio Sets Rough Can Be Re-plated !Vintage - Zenith Long Distance Am Fm Wood Table Top Radio - Model K731- Works Zenith S-18535 Tube RadioZenith Bakelite Tube Radio1951 Zenith RadioVintage 1965 Zenith Royal 16 Transistor Radio...works Well :)Vintage Zenith Long Distance Vacuum Tube Radio X334 Excellent Working ConditionVtg Zenith 8 Transistor Pocket Radio Model " Royal 10 " Case & Operating GuideVintage 1941 Zenith 6s527 Radio Dial PointerZenith Radio Dial "z" Light Brass Bezels For 511 Racetrack Radio Sets Excellent!