Zenith Radio--The Early Years: 1919-1935

Zenith Radio--The Early Years: 1919-1935
By Harold N. Cones and John H. Bryant

with Martin Blankinship and William Wade


From Antique Radio Classified
(Copyright 1997 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.)

On a kitchen table in a house on Carmen Avenue, Chicago Radio Laboratory (CRL) had its humble beginnings. It later became the Zenith Radio Corporation, and one of the giants of the radio industry. In their earlier book, The Zenith Trans-Oceanic The Royalty of Radios, authors Harold Cones and John Bryant gave us insight into Zenith from the standpoint of the birth and development of the Trans-Oceanic sets. In this latest book, Zenith Radio The Early Years: 1919-1935, they give what may well prove to be the definitive answer on the history of CRL and Zenith from the beginning up to 1935.

This book is the result of exhaustive research through Zenith archives, and the fortunate find of the personal files of Commander Eugene McDonald the driving force behind Zenith in an old Zenith television assembly plant. The authors have provided us with photos and information on the Zenith Radio Corporation that might possibly have been lost forever. Some of the material has never been published until now.

As in the first book, the authors' writing style is an easy and enjoyable read. This one too is soft-covered, and, except for the database section, is printed on heavy coated stock. In a note from author Bryant, we learn that, according to the publisher, the paper in the database section is the same weight and quality as the coated stock. However, the uncoated paper reduces glare on the tables and makes it easier to add notes on these pages. I find that this difference doesn't detract from the book at all.

The book is divided into three main sections with three appendices and endnotes. Section I contains six chapters on the history of Zenith radio, while Section II features 30 pages of color photos of Zenith and CRL radios. Section III contains pages devoted to an illustrated catalog and database of CRL and Zenith products. In all, there are 223 pages packed with information.


Chapters 1-4 of this section cover the very beginnings of Chicago Radio Laboratory when Ralph H. G. Mathews and Karl Hassel, two Navy buddies, began building receivers on the kitchen table of the Mathews home on Carmen Avenue in Chicago. The story continues on to the subsequent move to a garage near the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the association with the QRS Music Company, and the eventual move to a 3,000-square foot rented factory at 6433 Ravenswood.

The growth of CRL into the Zenith Radio Corporation, the role Zenith played in helping to define the growing broadcast industry, the formation of Zenith-owned radio station WJAZ all under the leadership of Commander Eugene F. McDonald are covered in great detail.

Chapter 5 is an intimate look at the adventurous commander and his many travels, along with his association with the famed explorer Donald B. MacMillan. This is probably one of the most detailed insights into this almost "mystical" leader of the Zenith Corporation ever written.

Chapter 6 deals with surviving the Depression years. Many radio manufacturers folded quickly after the stock market crash on October 24, 1929. On October 23, 1929, Zenith turned out 2,300 radio sets, with wholesalers begging for more. After the crash, orders practically stopped, and production was down to 300 sets a day. But, Zenith had not kept a large inventory of expensive sets on hand. Instead, the company kept a stock of raw materials and could easily and quickly switch to producing lower cost radios. This flexibility was a factor in its ability to survive when so many other manufacturers were going under.

Section I is loaded with photographs, along with numerous old-time ads for Zenith products.


Section II contains photographs of Zenith and CRL radio sets. There are 31 pages of excellent color photos, from the early CRL sets to the highly prized 1935 Stratosphere Model 1000-Z. The photos are of sets from various private collections. I compliment the authors, who did the photography, on providing this visual record of Zenith radios, some of which are the only known existing models. These photos may well provide the only opportunity for many readers to see what these beautiful sets look like.


The CRL and Zenith Illustrated catalog is a very good piece of work by the authors. According to author Bryant, over half of the images of the sets have not been published since their introduction in the 1920s and 1930s.

The tables in the database section are a wealth of information. There are separate tables for CRL and Zenith products. The CRL tables list model year, name, type, description, original price, and comments. The Zenith tables list model year, model, name, style, chassis, circuit type, number of tubes, power required, band coverage, original price, and comments.

In a conversation I had with Bryant, I learned that a lot of careful research went into the database concerning the retail model year. Even though he suspects there may be some controversy in this area, he stands by it one hundred percent.

The Index and Rarity/Value Guide is sorted by model number giving the model year, a rarity scale, and value range. Most price guides include value ranges based on a radio's condition. But in this book, the authors state, "The Value Ranges in the Index are not the Value Range of a particular set, varying related to its condition, with a mint set at the upper end of the range. Rather, the value range is a statistical grouping of different models of similar value where the average 1997 price for a particular model would fall, if the radio in question were in Very Good to Excellent condition, with the original finish."

This entire section will serve as an invaluable reference for the Zenith collector, and once again, the authors are to be commended for bringing together this useful information.


There are two charts in the Appendices: one gives national sales figures and the number of sets sold; the other, gives Zenith sales figures for the years 1921-1935. Another page gives a brief technological history of Zenith products in chronological order. There are over 16 pages of endnotes which should satisfy just about anyone's curiosity as to the source of information.


As with their earlier book on the Zenith Trans-Oceanic sets, John Bryant and Harold Cones have done a superb job with this current work on the Zenith Radio Corporation. I am sure that once you pick it up, you will find as I did, it is hard to put down.

The book however, is not without a few drawbacks and errors, and as a reviewer I would be remiss in not listing them. The following were pointed out to me in an e-mail from John Bryant and can be attributed to mistakes mostly made by the publisher and printer.

Small print type: According to the publisher, the print is rather small in order to cut the number of pages and keep the cost of the book down. I have to agree that the small print does make reading a bit harder for those of us who need a little assistance in the sight department.

Page 6: The names of Nate Aram and John McCallister are misspelled.

Page 57: Four photos of WJAZ are shown with the captions completely scrambled.

Page 71: Two photos have the captions reversed, and the photos are printed as mirror images.

Inside back cover: The price should read $29.95 and the page count 223.

Back cover: The fourth word of the last sentence of the first paragraph should read "an" rather than "in."

The research that went into the making of this book had to have been an arduous undertaking, and my review may not do it justice. Some may take issue with certain parts of the book; however, the picture of the past often has missing pieces, and it is sometimes hard to tell just how all the pieces should fit.

Unless you have firsthand knowledge of the past by having been there, or has access to those who have, you have to rely on what you discover by your own research or the research of others. You take that information, which may or may not be completely accurate, and draw your conclusions. Slowly, pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, and when finished, you either have a complete picture or one with enough pieces to enable you to stand back and say "that must be pretty close to how it was."

This book puts a lot of the pieces together into what has to be the best picture to date of the history of CRL and Zenith. Today, when corporations seem to have very little interest in their past history, our hats are off to Bryant and Cones for their diligent search for the pieces to a very interesting picture of the past. For the collector of old radios, or anyone with an interest in the history of radio, this book is a must as an addition to the library.

Zenith Radio the Early Years: 1919-1935 is available in an 8 1/2" x 11" horizontal, soft cover format at $29.95, plus $2 shipping and handling, from: The Radio Professors, P.O. Box 592, Stillwater, OK, 74076. Checks must be in U.S. funds on a U.S. bank only, and sorry, but no credit cards.

The book may also be ordered from Antique Radio Classified and other A.R.C. advertisers. Please check them for shipping information.

© 1997 by Bill Harris

Bill Harris, a member of the Vintage Radio and Phonograph Society, is very active is the club and on the internet, from which we obtained this review.

(Bill Harris, 1513 Bellechase Dr., Roanoke, TX 76262)

[See the listing for this book in Books, etc., For Sale]   [Order Page]

[Free Sample] [Books, etc., For Sale] [Subscribe to A.R.C./Renew]
[Online Ordering] [Book Reviews] [Event Calendar]
[Home] [About ARC] [Subscription Information] [Links]

Antique Radio Classified
P.O. Box 2-V75, Carlisle, MA 01741
TEL: (978) 371 - 0512
FAX: (978) 371 - 7129
E-MAIL: ARC@antiqueradio.com

URL = http://www.antiqueradio.com/bookrev1_12-97.html
Copyright © 1996 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.
Last revised: July 14, 1998. Pages designed by Wayward Fluffy Publications