The Zenith Story – Part 1

April 18, 2011

From “the Zenith Story: A history from 1918 to 1954” Zenith Electronics Corporation, Glenview

On December 14, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi flashed the letter “S” across the Atlantic Ocean by wireless telegraph, and thereby launched a revolution in communications that was destined to bring profound changes in the pattern of civilization. Marconi’s tremendous achievement brought only passing attention from the adult public, but it kindled the imagination of eager youngsters everywhere. In the decade that followed many of these youngsters dismayed their parents by devoting more time and effort to “Marconi’s toy” than to preparing themselves for a future in “something practical”.


Two of these “wireless doodlers” lived hundreds of miles apart, and were to meet only by sheer chance. R. H. G. Mathews of Chicago pursued the hobby and qualified as an amateur radio operator in 1912. In 1915 he began building and selling wireless equipment to other amateurs. Karl Hassel of Sharpsville, Pa., won his amateur license in 1915, and then matriculated at the University of Pittsburgh. Here he discovered that he was the only person on the campus, student or faculty, who knew how to operate the University’s newly constructed wireless station. Came World War I, and both boys enlisted in the Navy. They met at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and worked together on radio until 1918. They then set up a continuation of Mathews’ business as Chicago Radio Laboratory, building and selling radio sets.

Their first factory was a table in Mathews’ kitchen. Their tools were pliers, screwdrivers, a hand drill, and a soldering iron that had to be heated over the burner of a gas stove. From this kitchen table workshop grew the business that was to become Zenith Radio Corporation. Early in their business life Mathews and Hassel began the long series of radio “firsts” that has become a Zenith tradition. One of their first ventures was construction of a long wave radio receiver for the Chicago Tribune, which was used to pick up news dispatches about the Versailles Peace Conference from a long wave station in France. This short circuiting of the congested trans-Atlantic cable enabled the Tribune to beat competitors by 12 to 24 hours on conference stories. The varnish had scarcely dried on the kitchen table workbench before the fledgling business needed larger quarters. The boys built a new factory near the Edge-water Beach Hotel. It was a shanty-like structure that gave them a working space of fourteen by eighteen feet, with a cubby hole for their amateur radio station, 9ZN. At about the same time they published their first catalogue. A few months later they coined the trade name, Z-Nith, from the call letters of their radio station. This was the origin of the trade mark, Zenith. The next Z-Nith first was construction and installation of a wireless system that made the N. C. & St. L. the first railroad in the world to successfully dispatch trains by wireless telegraph. Transmitters and receivers were set up in Tullahoma, Tennessee and Guntersville, Alabama to handle traffic over the rough country between.

Initial difficulties included such things as setting off a bank’s burglar alarm during a directors’ meeting; adding a high voltage shock to the pain of a dentist’s drill while he was working on a touchy patient; and putting nearby telephones out of service. These problems were ironed out. The system went into service, and operated successfully for several years. By the end of 1919, the Z-Nith partnership was thriving, with production exceeding one complete set a week. In May, 1920, the boys acquired their most important asset, a license to use the basic regenerative circuit patent of radio’s greatest inventive genius, the late Major Edwin H. Armstrong. Until the latter part of 1920, Chicago Radio Laboratory concentrated on building equipment for the growing army of radio amateurs, or “hams” as they soon came to be known. A change came in November of that year. Radio broadcasting as we know it today was non-existent. The University of Wisconsin had begun in 1919 a regular broadcast schedule of news, market reports, weather information, and general programs from its station 9XN (now WHA). As a public service for radio amateurs WHA developed a unique program. Each noon it radio-telegraphed the weather report in fast code for expert “hams”. The report was then repeated in slow code so that beginners

could take it. After that, an announcer read the weather report for the general public, and so that beginner “hams” could check their accuracy. Here and there around the country other stations produced similar schedules, but only a narrow segment of the public showed interest. Then came the presidential election of 1920. News of the Harding landslide was disseminated with startling speed throughout the country by station KDKA in Pittsburgh and other stations. The public suddenly realized that Marconi’s toy was a very useful and practical communications tool. Broadcasting began in earnest. Hassel and Mathews quickly put on the market a receiver with which the general public could hear the growing number of broadcasts. Business boomed, and within a few months the walls of Chicago Radio Laboratory’s new factory were bulging. So the company moved to a mammoth 3,000 square foot plant on Ravenswood Avenue, with a staggering rental of $300 per month, and a payroll of six employees. At this time the boys bought their first power tool, a motor-driven drill press, and boomed production to more than one set a day.


In the meantime, E. F. McDonald, Jr., of Syracuse, N. Y., had established himself in the automobile business in Chicago, where he introduced the first successful plan for selling automobiles on time payments; had served through the war in Naval Intelligence and been discharged with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander; and was looking around for a new business. On New Year’s Eve, 1920, McDonald went to a garage to pick up his automobile, and noticed several men listening to music coming from a box. He asked the proprietor what there was about this phonograph to make people listen to it on New Year’s Eve. “That is no phonograph,” he was told. “That is a radio. They are listening to music through the air from Pittsburgh.”
McDonald learned that it would take several months to get delivery on a radio set for himself, and decided he had found his new business for which he had been searching since the end of the war. However, it was not that simple. He found out that he would need a license to use the inventions of Major E. H. Armstrong, and Armstrong licenses were no longer available. Temporarily balked, McDonald soon heard about two young men — Hassel and Mathews — who were building radio receivers on Chicago’s north side. Thinking about that radio set, he paid a visit to the Ravenswood factory and took particular fancy to a set that sold for $75.00, less tubes, batteries, and head-phones. Hassel, in person, came to McDonald’s residence at the Illinois Athletic Club to install it—and didn’t leave until he had collected his money. Recalling the occasion, Hassel said, “It wasn’t a question of whether I trusted him or not—we needed the money to keep going.” Hassel and Mathews had the all-important Armstrong license, and more business than they could handle with the equipment they owned. But they were short on capital. McDonald joined forces with them, provided funds for expansion, and became general manager of Chicago Radio Laboratory. One of his first moves was to change the trade mark from Z-Nith to Zenith. When negotiations began, Hassel and Mathews were represented by a young Chicago attorney named Irving Herriott. Hassel told McDonald that he, too, should have an attorney. “I like the cut of Herriott’s ‘jib,’ ” McDonald replied. “Let him represent us both.” So began Mr. Herriott’s long period of distinguished service as Zenith’s general counsel, which continued until his death on November 17, 1953. Normally, capital investment in an existing business results in an equity for the investor. In this case, however, the largest investor, McDonald, owned no interest what-soever in Chicago Radio Laboratory, and for a very good reason. The Armstrong license was held by Chicago Radio Laboratory, a co-partnership, and was not transferable. This also had its bearing on the organization of Zenith Radio Corporation. When the company was formed in 1923 it was not a manufacturer. Instead, it was the exclusive sales and marketing organization for handling the radio equipment built by Chicago Radio Laboratory. This arrangement continued until other developments made a consolidation possible, at which time the entire assets and business of Chicago Radio Laboratory were acquired and Zenith became a manufacturer in its own name. McDonald’s financial backing and business know-how added impetus to the rapidly growing volume of business. In 1922 the factory was moved to larger quarters at 48th and Kedzie.


Meantime, part of the company activities had gone back to the old radio shack near the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Mathews, Hassel and the engineers built a broadcast transmitter and installed it there under the call letters WJAZ. Studios were in the hotel itself, and “QSL” cards began to come in from listeners all over the nation. Nineteen-twenty-three was an exciting year. Commander McDonald organized and became the first president of the National Association of Broadcasters. At this time nobody had a very clear idea of how radio broadcasting could be financed, but thoughtful Americans did not relish the idea of a government monopoly such as grew up in most foreign countries. McDonald provided and demonstrated the answer. The publisher of a radio magazine for amateurs had greatly increased his print order one month in anticipation of absorbing another magazine. The merger fell through, and he was left with a staggering surplus of unsaleable magazines. McDonald asked him if he would donate $1,000 to the National Association of Broadcasters if they could sell these magazines over the air. He agreed. Magazines were spotted in the few cities which at that time had broadcasting stations, and whose owners dared try this unorthodox scheme. Some broadcasters refused to participate.

From Chicago to the Arctic, Comdr. McDonald broadcast the news over WJAZ for members of MacMillans 1923 expedition.

For three nights announcers on participating stations including Zenith’s Station WJAZ read selected articles from the magazine, and told listeners that copies could be obtained from newsstands. The issue sold out, 100%. The publisher was delighted and continued the arrangement. So far as can be determined, that was the first regular merchandising program conducted over a group of stations. It launched the system of sponsored broadcasting which has given Americans the finest broadcast service in the world.


It was also in 1923 that McDonald persuaded Commander Donald B. MacMillan, the Arctic explorer, to take radio with him to the Arctic. When MacMillan sailed that summer his ship, the Bowdoin, was equipped with Zenith short wave transmitting and receiving equipment. For the benefit of the expedition WJAZ set up special news programs, and transmitting messages from friends and families of men in the expedition. Broadcasts from WJAZ were picked up directly by the Bowdoin. Return messages came by short wave, frequently relayed by cooperative youngsters from all parts of the country, who covered phenomenal distances with their low-powered short wave equipment. This demonstration of short wave efficiency did not go unnoticed at Zenith, although at that time most radio interests believed that short wave had no commercial value. Zenith sold this WJAZ transmitter to the Edgewater Beach Hotel in 1924, but this did not mean the end of Zenith’s broadcasting activities.
The company retained the call letters WJAZ, and constructed what was probably the first mobile radio broadcasting station. It was first used to locate a new station site in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, 20 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. In 1925 this truck went all over the nation for the purpose of publicizing both Zenith and the new, highly efficient art of broadcasting. One broad-cast was made from the summit of Pikes Peak. In 1924, for the fourth time in five years, the company was compelled to find larger quarters. This time it moved to a four-story building at 3620 South Iron Street in Chicago. Hassel invented a new receiver with greatly simplified tuning which did not infringe on Armstrong patents. Zenith Radio Corporation then became a manufacturer in its own right, and marketed the receiver under the name Super-Zenith. It was an outstanding commercial success. The same year saw introduction of the first portable radio, a suitcase-like affair with built-in loop antenna and horn type loudspeaker that sold for $200. (It is a measure of radio’s progress that in little more than ten years Zenith built and sold a better portable for $19.95.)


1925 was another exciting year in which Zenith made notable commercial progress and exerted a profound influence on the future of communications and the development of American broadcasting. At that time radio equipment on naval and merchant vessels the world over was long wave. It covered good distance at night, but during the day even powerful stations were out of touch with other ships and with shore stations at distances of only a few hundred miles. Nevertheless, the experts disdained short wave radio, which had been assigned to amateurs as a plaything. This was the year the U. S. Fleet had scheduled a goodwill tour to New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia. It was also the year that Commander McDonald was scheduled to go north on the MacMillan-National Geo-graphic Arctic Expedition. McDonald persuaded Admiral Ridley McLean to pin shortwave radio to the test by commissioning a young amateur, Fred Schnell (who later served in the World War II Navy as a Captain), and sending him along on the cruise aboard the U.S.S. Seattle, flagship of the fleet. That settled, McDonald turned his attention toward the new MacMillan expedition. He selected the S.S. Peary, a sturdy 160 foot ship, equipped it with Zenith short-wave transmitting and receiving gear. When the MacMillan-National Geographic Expedition headed north in the spring of 1925, McDonald was skipper of the Peary, and second in command of the expedition, in charge of the naval aviation personnel that had been assigned to the expedition by President Coolidge. When the expedition sailed, it left behind the heavy, long wave transmitting and receiving equipment that had been supplied by the Navy, for the simple reason that this gear could not provide long distance communication during the continuous daylight of the Arctic summer.

Singing Eskimos

But as they neared Nova Scotia they were overhauled by a fast destroyer, pulled into Sydney, and ordered to install the useless equipment as protection for the naval personnel on the expedition. This long wave radio gear did not send or receive a single message while in the Arctic. It couldn’t span the long distances involved dur-ing the 24-hour Arctic daylight. Short wave, however, soon gave dramatic proof of its value. Putting in at Disko Island to refuel, McDonald was told by the local Danish governor that permission would have to be received from the Danish Minister in Washington. He regretted that their long wave radio transmitter could not get a message out in daylight, but could do nothing about it until night fell. This was in June, and night would not come until September. McDonald needed coal, so he turned to his short wave rig, and enlisted the services of an amateur radio operator near Washington. Four hours later he had his permission from the Danish Minister. In the meantime the U. S. Navy Fleet was on its way across the Pacific. With his short wave “pin box radio” Schnell kept direct contact with American amateurs long after the Fleet’s high-powered, long wave equipment had lost daytime contact. He also communicated directly with the Peary, as it sailed north toward Greenland. The MacMillan expedition reached Etah, Greenland, only eleven degrees from the North Pole, while the U.S.S. Seattle was off the coast of Tasmania, 12,000 miles away. The Fleet’s long wave equipment could not even main-tain direct contact with the American continent at this great distance. But Schnell communicated directly by short wave, not only with American amateurs, but with the MacMillan Expedition as well. McDonald clinched the demonstration by putting a group of Eskimo singers before the mike, and sending their voices to Admiral Coontz on the Seattle, almost exactly half the world away. That was the start of practical use of short wave radio by the U. S. Navy. The navies and merchant marines of the world soon followed. It is interesting to note that ALL of radio’s expansion into new channels since that date — international communications, ship to shore, VHF and UHF television, radar, etc. — has been in this once “useless” wave band of 200 meters and less.

First AC set


In 1925 there existed a one-man control of radio with the Secretary of Commerce as supreme czar. McDonald said to then Secretary Herbert Hoover that he did not believe the law was sound. On the invitation of Mr. Hoover, who said he would welcome a test case, McDonald violated a Department of Commerce order and broadcast on a Canadian wavelength. The Department brought an action against Zenith, and against McDonald personally. Zenith went into court with the contention that the radio law of 1912 was out of date in 1926. Zenith won. Congress then passed a law establishing the Federal Radio Commission (what is now FCC) which made it possible to minimize the growing interference between stations on the same wave length. Zenith officials took a leading part in helping to frame and pass the new law. So ended one-man control of radio.


In 1926 came one of the most important milestones in radio set history, another Zenith First. Up to that time home radios operated on heavy storage batteries, dry batteries, or a combination of both. Zenith developed and put on the market the first home receiver that operated directly from regular AC electric current. For most homes this meant the end of cumbersome and messy batteries, and made radio safe for the living room rug. That marked the transition of radio from tinkerer’s toy to a standard household necessity.

Another Zenith First of 1926 turned out to be the better mouse trap that the world did not beat a path to. It was the first railroad train in the world equipped with shortwave (70 meters) radio communications, a New York Central special of twelve cars that pulled out of Elkhart, Indiana on June 11, and made the 100 mile run to Englewood, Illinois with all communications between cab and caboose conducted by radio. The equipment was designed and installed by G. E. Gustafson, a young Zenith engineer, who is now vice-president in charge of engineering. He started from scratch in development of suitable antenna, signalling systems to call the crew at either end, methods of preventing road noises from getting into the mikes, etc. The October, 1927 issue of Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers reported, “No difficulty was had in maintaining two-way conversation between the caboose and the locomotive when standing still or when running at top speed. The engineer was able to hear and understand everything coming from the loudspeaker be-hind his head without diverting his attention from the road ahead … all train orders were given by means of the radio installation . . . the train was stopped and the engine uncoupled from the train and run ahead under orders given entirely by radio from the caboose . . . com-munication was maintained with loudspeaker operation at both ends up to a distance of four miles . There was an official demonstration on July 8, with a 116 car freight train carrying passenger car and caboose filled with newspaper men and radio and railroad offi-cials. It made the run from Englewood to Elkhart with all communications between cab and caboose by radio. Results of the official test were entirely satisfactory, and radio transmission of signals saved the delays that ordinarily occur when a train man walks the entire length of the train. Zenith did not go into the railroad radio business because the limited market did not justify the heavy expense involved, and because of the Management’s conviction that Zenith’s future lay in mass production of radionic equipment for the public. The idea did not take hold at the time, partly because of the shortage of radio frequencies, and partly because the idea was not vigorously promoted. Development of FM, and expansion of radio into the shorter wave spectrum, have led to extensive use of radio by railroads in recent years. Some major railroads now have their crack trains equipped with radio to communi-cate between cab and the rest of the train, and between the train and land stations. Some are even using radio to provide a link for passenger use from moving trains to the long distance telephone.


By 1927 the radio manufacturing industry encom-passed a helter-skelter of many brand names, most of which have long since disappeared, and radios had wide variation in quality and performance. Zenith, which al-ready possessed an outstanding reputation, placed even greater emphasis on superior quality and engineering innovations, and on merchandising these features. The company’s advertising employed such slogans as “The Quality Goes in Before the Name Goes On,” “Known the World Over,” and “World’s Largest Manufacturer of High Grade Radio.” Through most of 1927 Zenith continued to be the only manufacturer producing all-electric AC sets. To this fea-ture was added automatic push button tuning, which enabled the user to select any of nine stations by simply pushing the appropriate button.

First with push button selection

The company was really beginning to roll. Net profits, which had been a tidy little $34,000 in 1924, were $224,000 for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1927.

In the next year Zenith moved into high gear. The company offered a line of all-electric sets, many with automatic tuning, which sold in a price range from $100 to $2,500. Net profit for the ten months ended April 30, 1928, was $728,000. In the following year the earn-ings broke the million dollar mark with a thumping $1,110,000.

One interesting highlight of 1929 was the production of a custom-built radio for King Alexander I of Jugo-slavia. A special emissary of the King called. He said he had been turned down by radio manufacturers in New York who thought he was pulling a gag, and that he wanted to purchase a special radio set for His Majesty. He came out to the factory in formal attire, with a ribbon across his chest, and placed the order.

The set was housed in one of Zenith’s most ornate cabinets. It included Zenith’s finest long wave and short wave chassis, plus a remote control with 75 foot cord. The King had a wonderful time with it. At one party he confounded his generals by switching from station to station, short wave to long wave, with the remote control. They thought it was pure magic.

The King was so pleased with the set that he gave Zenith an order to supply radios for the Jugoslavian school system.

foot switch for changing stations

The outlook for business seemed rosy in these last months of “the era of wonderful nonsense.” Then came the market crash of October, 1929, and the depression years that followed. All business suffered severely; the young radio industry was thrown into virtual chaos.

(Click here for part 2)

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  1. […] Click here for part 1 […]

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