Zenith Radio Corporation, est. 1918

 

Museum Artifact: Zenith Super-Triumph Tube Radio, 1951

Made By: Zenith Radio Corporation, 6001 W. Dickens Ave., Chicago, IL [Galewood]

"You've had your last tussle with howling radio static once you tune in this terrific performer," raved an original advertisement for our museum artifact: a 1951 Zenith "Super Triumph" table radio. "Reaching far beyond the usual FM range, it brings you news, sports, music and market reports where AM and many FM sets are practically useless. All beautifully sharp and clear . . . day or night, summer or winter—even during the worst storms!

 

"Tone too, is far richer in this stunning beauty—thanks to a special Zenith-built speaker. Superior Zenith tuning circuits prevent fading and drifting. And to double your listening pleasure, there's Zenith's famous Long-Distance AM reception.

 

"Best of all, you'll need no aerial in primary signal areas. Zenith's built-in FM antenna and AM Wavemagnet let you plug in and play! There's a giant-size dial for easy tuning . . . Flexo-Grip handle for easy carrying. Handsome maroon plastic cabinet. See it now at your Zenith Radio and Television dealer's! Only $64.95"

 

By the time the "Super Triumph" made its debut in the early 1950s, Chicago's Zenith Corporation was rapidly approaching its own, well, zenith. Operating multiple factories employing nearly 5,000 workers in the Chicagoland area alone, the company had successfully transitioned into the explosive new television market after World War II, while still maintaining its place as a long respected leader in radio production and innovation. It was a fine-tuned, international industrial behemoth—a far cry from its rag-tag, rebellious roots.

 

[The first Zenith testing station at 5525 N. Sheridan Rd. in the Edgewater neighborhood, 1920]

 

History of the Zenith Radio Corp, Part I: Karl and Ralph

 

The company that would become the Zenith Corporation began quite literally inside a “radio shack”—a nondescript two-car garage in Edgewater that served as both a makeshift assembly plant and a broadcasting bunker.

 

The Chicago Radio Laboratory, as it was originally known in 1919, was the brainchild of two baby-faced ham radio nerds; 22 year-old Pennsylvania native Karl Hassel and 21 year-old Chicagoan Ralph Mathews. During World War I, the two cadets crossed paths at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and immediately bonded over their shared obsession with oscillating audion circuits and long wave receivers. Now, with the war in the rear-view, both fellas set their sights on what they agreed was the imminent rise of the radio age.

 

In the beginning, the business was not exactly operating on the same scale as its ambition. Mathews’s own apartment at 1316 W. Carmen Avenue was the Chicago Radio Labs’ official headquarters for a while, with the aforementioned shack at 5525 N. Sheridan Road serving as its "testing station." The shack itself actually sat on the property of the swanky Edgewater Beach Hotel, but the hotel manager kindly let Mathews and Hassel make use of it, so long as they didn't cause a fuss. Hotel guests had no idea that the seeds of a corporate titan were growing out there on the lawn.

 

In many respects, Mathews and Hassel were following a script not unlike the Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak partnership some 50 years later—young tech enthusiasts dive into an industry that’s too new to be fully understood by the public, let alone properly regulated by the government. In both cases, there would be competition crawling out of the woodwork, copycat patent thieving, and alliances to forge and ultimately sever. But while software companies might threaten one another with lawsuits, things were a little bit more Wild West in the early days of radio.

 

[Left: One of the first Chicago Radio Laboratory ads from QST magazine (1919). Right: The apartment listed as the company's address on that ad, Ralph Mathews's home at 1316 W. Carmen Avenue in Andersonville / Edgewater.]

 

Part II: Days of the Radio Gangs

 

Ralph Mathews—remembering his early teenage forays into Chicago’s amateur radio scene—described it more like a Prohibition-style turf war. There were “North, South, and West Side gangs,” he wrote in a 1921 article for QST magazine, “each having as a primary object the annihilation of the aerials [antennas] of the others.”

 

Radio gangs?!

 

Indeed. With commercial radio not yet in existence, the city was essentially a sea of wireless pirates competing to establish the biggest and best communication relay networks. As a result, there was an incentive for sabotage.

 

“Frankly, Chicago conditions before the war were the worst that this writer has ever seen anywhere,” Mathews wrote, citing a specific occasion when an entire antenna was “forcibly and thoroughly removed” thirty minutes before a scheduled relay time. When a replacement was built, it was manned with armed guards to protect it. “Two friends sat out under the mast with 38-calibre cannons,” Mathews recalled, “and they chased away exactly eight individuals, each with his little side-cutting pliers.”

 

In typical Chicago fashion, even the city’s geeky ham radio element had to start employing pistol-packing heavies. There needs to be a film about this madness.

 

“If this condition had continued,” Mathews noted, “Chicago would have been the dead spot in regard to relay traffic. . . Fortunately, however, there were in each of the already existing sectional ‘clubs’ certain individuals having influence and with an unselfish consideration for the radio game as a whole. [Myself] and Mr. F.H. Schnell, then Chicago City Manager, called together these men and the Chicago situation was discussed. As a result, the method of organization now known as the ‘Chicago Plan’ was evolved.”

 

The “Chicago Plan”—not to be confused with Daniel Burnham’s better-known “Plan of Chicago”—is rarely mentioned as part of the grand history of the Zenith Radio Corp, but it stands as one of the first of many major achievements in which the company played a leading role.

[The Chicago Radio Laboratory started using the Z-Nith brand, a play on the company's "9ZN" radio call letters, in 1920]

 

By 1921, Ralph Mathews had helped negotiate the formation of an Executive Radio Council, with elected representatives from different clubs around the greater Chicagoland area. The council would negotiate terms and regulations for airwave traffic, and if any individual ham user broke these rules or "hogged" the air, his whole club would be fined for it. Social events and baseball games were also held in an effort to create “better friendly feeling and cooperation among the mass of Chicago radio men.” In short time, the program produced excellent results in stemming gang violence, such as it were.

 

Before we give Mathews too much credit for creating this airwave Utopia, however, it’s worth noting that he did have some ulterior motives.

 

In the first year of the the Chicago Radio Laboratory’s existence, Mathews and Hassel mostly just focused on making equipment for their fellow amateur radio nuts. In 1920, that abruptly changed. First, the duo managed to license the regenerative circuit patent held by one of their heroes, the engineer Edwin H. Armstrong. Then, months later, the first radio broadcasts of a presidential election awoke the nation to the true power of the medium, rapidly increasing demand for quality, affordable radio sets. Mathews and Hassel were ready to take a big step, and cleaning up the riff-raff in Chicago's radio underworld was a good place to start—essentially clearing the path to regional domination.

 

[The Chicago Radio Laboratory crew at work, 1921]

 

With the “Chicago Plan” bringing order from chaos, it was on to the next problem: CASH. Or more specifically, a lack thereof.

 

Chicago Radio Labs’ first catalog in 1919 was put together by Mathews’ father, who worked for a printing company. “It didn't cost us anything,” Karl Hassel recalled years later, “[otherwise] we wouldn't have had a catalog. I'm telling you, we didn't have any money."

 

The boys eventually did well enough to move into a more reasonable factory space in the third floor of a building at 6433 N. Ravenswood Avenue in 1921, but paying six employees (on top of a $300 per month rental fee) was draining funds in a hurry. They desperately needed an investor, and as the fates would have it, he was about to walk right through their door.

[Zenith's founding fathers, from left: Ralph Mathews, Karl Hassel & "Commander" E. F. McDonald]

 

Part III: The Commander

 

Eugene F. McDonald, Jr. was a 35 year-old high school dropout who’d turned himself first into a wealthy car salesman, then a Lieutenant-Commander in Navy Intelligence during the WWI. He was just one of those guys who cast a long shadow; supremely if not irrationally confident. On one particular afternoon in 1921, McDonald made a visit to the Chicago Radio Laboratory, seeking out of “one of those crazy, new-fangled automobile radios” to install in his own car. “I heard you boys can make one.”

 

Karl Hassel took on the request enthusiastically, since a custom job meant a fat price tag. Fortunately, McDonald was ultimately pleased with his new automobile jambox, and—sniffing a business opportunity—decided to join forces with the radio lads as their new industrial sugar daddy.

 

For his first executive order, McDonald got Mathews and Hassel to change their radio brand name from Z-nith to just the regular human word, “Zenith," complete with a snazzy new lightning bolt trademark. Within three years time, the Chicago Radio Lab identity would be scrapped entirely, as the Zenith Radio Corporation was born—with the iron fist of E.F. McDonald steering the ship.

 

It’s pretty much impossible to overstate the impact McDonald had on Zenith’s meteoric rise over the 30 years that followed. Mathews and Hassel might have had the tech skills and the vision, but McDonald had the capital, business acumen, and cutthroat instincts to separate his company from the ever-growing pack.

 

For years, McDonald’s employees called him “Commander,” and there seems to be a general consensus that the name had more to do with his personality than his military rank. Strict and to the point, he swiftly earned his employees’ respect and loyalty, and in turn, kept them happy, adapting to new challenges as the business grew. Unique profit sharing plans were eventually established to make workers feel part of the company’s success, and as a result, labor strikes were thoroughly avoided throughout McDonald’s tenure.

 

From 1924 to 1937, the Zenith Radio Corp. occupied its first large-scale manufacturing facility, located at 3620 South Iron Street in the Central Manufacturing District. This four-story building would become something of a launching pad for the brand in its adolescent years, as the employee count ballooned from less than 100 to more than 450 by the mid 1930s. 

 

[The first major Zenith factory, located at 3620 S. Iron Street in McKinley Park, was in operation from 1924 to 1937. It has long since been demolished.]

 

McDonald gradually built an all-star support team during his first decade on the job, hiring treasurer and future VP Hugh Robertson, as well as the company’s most important product development engineer in both the radio and (eventually) television departments, Gilbert E. Gustafson.

 

Karl Hassel stayed on for the long haul, as well, eventually putting in more than 40 years with the company he helped launch. Ralph Mathews, by contrast, left in 1928 to pursue an advertising career. It's possible he didn't adjust to life with the Commander quite as well as some of his cohorts (he did end up coming back to electronics years later with Westinghouse and Magnavox, and lived well into his 90s).

 

[An early Zenith storefront in Chicago, at Michigan and Huron, 1930s. There's an Apple store there now, appropriately enough.] 

 

The Commander poured money into research and development, even during the slowdowns of the Great Depression. Having the best product was certainly a goal, but then again, if you do something first, you're also automatically the best, at least until somebody else tries it. So for McDonald, innovation was everything. 

 

This philosophy needn't be limited to the science, either. In marketing, too, McDonald wanted to push the envelope, carrying over a Big Top adventurousness he’d developed during his car dealership days.

 

“Once, when the Commander was selling automobiles, he drove a new car straight up the steps of a Grant Park statue as a publicity stunt,” legendary Sun Times columnist Irv Kupcinet wrote in his memoir Kup’s Chicago. “Another time, he publicized his short-wave radios by traveling north into the Arctic Circle and leading Eskimos in a broadcast songfest.”

 

[Eugene McDonald invites native Inuits of Greenland to sing into a microphone, sending their voices 12,000 miles over short wave radio to a receiver in Tasmania, thus proving the superiority of Zenith equipment in 1925]

 

An April 1958 issue of Television Digest added this assessment:

 

“Whatever else you may think about Zenith’s pres. Eugene F. McDonald—and he's not a man to ignore, especially as a competent and successful manufacturer and merchandiser—you must concede he's one of the cleverest publicity hounds in the land. His method is provocation, controversy, anything to get his name and Zenith mentioned—for it helps sell goods.”

 

That’s not to say good old-fashioned quality wasn’t a major selling point, too—the longtime Zenith slogan made that clear: “The Quality Goes In Before the Name Goes On.” Still, if you want to see how this company grew into one of the great electronics juggernauts of the 20th century, you have to start with looking at the things they did “first.”

 

[Zenith technology promotional film "The Long Corridor," 1955]

 

Part IV: Three Cheers for Pioneers

 

Stuff Zenith Did First - An Abridged Version

 

  • Short Wave Radio - early 1920s

  • The National Association of Broadcasters - founded by McDonald at Chicago’s Drake Hotel in 1922

  • First Portable Radio - 1924

  • First Battery-Free Radios Running on AC - 1926

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - originally founded as the Federal Radio Commission in 1926 based largely on McDonald’s influence

  • Push Button Tuning - 1927

  • 6-Volt Battery Radios + Windcharger Power Stations for rural and military use - 1934

  • Iconic Zenith Big Dial design - 1935

  • First Electric TV Station in the USA, 1939

  • First TV Station of Any Kind in Chicago, 1939

  • First FM Radio Station in the Midwest - 1940

  • Trans-Oceanic Portable Radio - WWII

  • First Low Cost Hearing Aids - 1943

  • First Pay TV Subscription Service - 1950

  • First TV Wireless Remote Control - 1955

 

[1955 advertisement for the Zenith Flash-Matic TV remote, invented by Eugene Polley]

 

Obviously the economic fallout of the 1930s was no walk in the park for Zenith, but by constantly staying ahead of the obligatory winds of change, they continued to grow while many competitors faltered. By 1937, they'd outgrown the Iron Street plant and relocated to a new 400,000 sq. ft. facility at 6001 West Dickens Avenue. This complex would be repeatedly expanded over the next several decades, beginning with preparations for Zenith’s entrance into wartime manufacturing. 

 

"In a war run by Radar and Radio," a 1944 employment ad read, "Hasten Victory—Help manufacture vital war equipment. Temporary, Duration or Permanent Jobs. Real post war opportunity."

 

They weren't just blowing smoke either. A huge portion of Zenith's workforce were women, and many who joined the company during the war actually stayed on in peacetime. In 1946, the company was still posting regular ads specifically seeking out female labor. "Zenith Needs 500 Women and Girls to help us meet the overwhelming demand for the sensational new Zenith Radios—America's Most Popular Radio. . . A grand place to work with people you like, plus all these other advantages: Higher Starting Rates; Rapid Advancement; Steady Work & Convenient Hours; 5 Clean Cafeterias with Appetizing Meals; Complete Medical Department; Liberal Profit Sharing Bonus Policy."

 

Were they paid an equal wage? Of course not. But in an industry associated with a certain breed of machismo academia, it was actually highly skilled, everyday women who were crafting the majority of the precision components of the "Golden Age" radios and first-wave televisions.

 

[Top: Workers at the first Dickens Avenue plant, 1940. Bottom Left: Ad seeking wartime workers at the plant in 1944. Bottom Middle and Right: Zenith workers in the 1950s]

 

Part V: Changing Tunes

 

Zenith sales topped $100 million in 1950, and close to 5,000 Chicagoans were earning their paycheck by either designing, building, packaging. testing, or shipping its products. The firm was on its way to becoming the number one manufacturer of black-and-white televisions, battling past its Chicago rival, the Admiral Corp. This post-war focus on TV suddenly made radio the second fiddle of Zenith’s commercial manufacturing for the first time, and in the years ahead, the designs started to show it.

 

The 1951 "Super Triumph" model in our collection (serial number S-17366), however, still shows a fine attention to detail. The gold dial is delightfully space-age, the Zenith crest on the righthand speaker is regal as all get-out, and the FM/AM knob and shiny sticker on the back (“Only Zenith has the Super-Sensitive Zenith-Armstrong FM”) captures a moment in time—a quality, portable bakelite FM radio right on the cusp of rock n’ roll’s arrival.

 

 

Notice the tiny dot beside the 100 on the radio dial? That was actually placed on many Zenith radios of the era to mark the location on the dial of the company’s own Chicago FM station, 99.5 WEFM—the call letters standing for E.F. McDonald, of course.

 

Later into the 1950s, Zenith grabbed a growing share of the all-important color TV market, having wisely aligned itself with the NTSC multiplex system that was eventually approved by the FCC as the preferred format.

 

The new technology that really became McDonald's obsession, however, was the one thing he was having far less success bringing to the public—subscription television. Zenith’s own successfully-tested “Phonevision" system was highly controversial in the ‘50s and shut down by the FCC, but McDonald—literally down to the final months of his life—was waging war against what he saw as a dangerous TV monopoly controlled by the two main networks, NBC and CBS.

 

In a letter to Congress on March 21, 1958, McDonald wrote: “It would be presumptuous on my part to try to point out the extent to which the First Article of the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing free speech, has been undermined by the overpowering and frightening development of TV. Free speech is not primarily the right of the publisher to print, but the right of the public to hear and read all sides of a question. . . . The networks have been able to sway many Members of Congress to oppose even a trial of subscription TV. The networks know that this new service would lessen their coercive power over affiliated stations and give independence to stations that are now dependent on the networks for their economic existence. Their opposition to subscription TV arises from just one thing—the fear of competition.

 

“This network monopoly, is in fact, a threat to freedom of speech—of vital interest to every printed publication. . . . Suppose for example, we were to elect the wrong man to the Presidency. Suppose he decided to use the tremendous power of TV to promote a ‘non-partisan’ issue, and enlisted the aid of the network chiefs. Suppose TV stations all over the country went on the air with fear propaganda . . . I daresay that such a campaign would produce millions of letters to Congress. Fantastic? The power is there, and it could be made use of if the wrong man came to power."

 

 

Part VI: Fade Out

 

McDonald died of cancer less than two months after writing that letter. He certainly had a level of media foresight few of his contemporaries could match, as his concepts of pay television certainly came to fruition a couple decades later. One could argue whether a splintered media has proven better at preventing propaganda than the old network monopoly model. But in any case, McDonald at least realized that people would always hate watching commercials.

 

Sadly, Zenith lost its long-time engineering genius, Gilbert Gustafson, within a few weeks of McDonald in 1958. It was the end of an era, but not the end of the company’s growth period just yet. Zenith actually reached its, you know, zenith . . . financially speaking, in the 1960s, topping $500 million in sales by 1966 and employing an eye-popping 15,000 workers nationally and abroad. The Chicago area alone had a whole legion of Zenith factories in operation by that point.

 

[Zenith workers in the 1960s]

 

Zenith's Chicago Factories (The Numbers as of 1962):

 

  • Plant #1: 6001 West Dickens Avenue - 2,500 workers made radio and television sets and Hi-Fi stereophonic phonographs.

  • Plant #2: 5801 West Dickens Ave. - 300 employees made electronics and servicing.

  • Plant #3: 1500 North Kostner Ave. - 2,100 employees made government electronics, radio and television components.

 

  • Plant #4: 3501 West Potomac Ave. - 60 employees performed warehousing.

  • Plant #5: 6501 West Grand Ave. - 500-600 workers made government hi-fi equipment.

  • Plant #6: 4245 North Knox Ave. (operated by subsidiary the Rauland Corp.)  - 850 workers who made television picture tubes.

  • Plant #7: 1247 West Belmont Ave. (operated by subsidiary Central Electronics, Inc.) - 100 employees made amateur radio equipment and performed auditory training.

 

[Zenith 's factories at 6001 W. Dickens Avenue (above) and down the street at 5801 W. Dickens were known as Plant 1 and Plant 2. Both buildings are abandoned but still standing, although several fires in 2017 have left their fates in serious question.]

 

[Left: Newspaper report as Zenith expands the Dickens Avenue complex in 1962. Right Top: The water tower over the abandoned Plant 2. Right Bottom: One of several fires that broke out at the abandoned Plant 1 in 2017]

 

When Zenith television sales finally started tanking as a new wave of competition emerged in the 1970s, the company did what it had always done and switched its focus to the next great frontier—in this case, computer technology. Renamed the Zenith Electronics Corporation in 1984, they were able to dodge a few blows, but there were no Commander McDonalds there to navigate the bumpy waters this time around. The last Chicago area factory shuttered in 1998, as is the familiar tale of the time period.

 

Zenith went bankrupt a year later, and Korea’s LG Electronics purchased the remaining American chunk of the company. Technically speaking, Zenith still exists today as a division of LG, with offices in Lincolnshire, Illinois. But its old Chicago factories—and the thousands of vintage Zenith radios still in circulation—offer the only real reminders of glories long since past.

 

As a nice bright spot, however, one of the earliest Zenith / Chicago Radio Laboratory facilities—the three-story building at Ravenswood Avenue and Schreiber Ave.—has recently been re-purposed as a unique public workspace.

 

The Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center is a pretty novel concept, welcoming anyone to learn about and utilize a wide range of industrial equipment for welding projects, woodworking, casting, 3D printing, and more (once certified). It’s basically like a gym membership for crafty folks—something the old Zenith boys probably would have gotten behind. [Photo above: The first decent-sized Zenith factory was located on the third floor of this building at 6433 N. Ravenswood Ave]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 [Chicago Radio Labs promotional comic strip from QST magazine, 1920]

 

[A vintage Zenith Color TV promotional sign from our museum collection, circa 1970]

 

 

 

[Zenith 70th Anniversary promo film, 1988]

 

Additional Sources:


The Zenith Story


"Zenith Electronics Corp." - Encyclopedia of Chicago


Television Digest - May, 1958


Kup's Chicago by Irv Kupcinet

 

QST, Vol 4, May 1921


"Three Amateurs Induced Into Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame" - ARRL.org


AntiqueRadio.com

 

"This Super Cool Hackerspace Lets You Build Anything" - DNAInfo.com

 

 

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