Zenith--The Earliest Years: The Chicago Radio Laboratory



The latest Cones and Bryant book "Zenith Radio ­ The Early Years, 1919-1935" has just been published. A.R.C. is fortunate to be able to present a preview of the extensive contents of this book in the following article about the earliest years of the Zenith Corporation. The first of a planned trilogy of books on the history of Zenith, this book is another example of the enthusiasm for their subject that the authors demonstrated in their earlier publication "The Zenith Trans-Oceanic: The Royalty of Radios," previewed in the January 1995 A.R.C. The new information contained in this volume was made available by the authors' discovery of the sealed files of longtime Zenith Corporation President Eugene F. McDonald in 1993. A review by Bill Harris of this impressive book also appears in this issue. (Editor)

Among the hundreds of radio manufacturers that arose with the popularization of radio in the very early 1920s was the Chicago Radio Laboratory, later to become Zenith Radio Corporation. From the very beginning, CRL/Zenith hung its hat on quality being more important than cost, a philosophy that allowed the company to grow and prosper in the fluid environment of the 1920s. By the onset of the Depression in 1929, Zenith was stable enough to weather the financial storm and emerge as a major manufacturing and marketing force.

The founders of what was to become Zenith Radio Corporation were two radio amateurs Ralph H.G. Mathews and Karl Hassel. The two were joined in business a bit later by Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., who contributed his considerable finances, publicity skills and inventiveness. Soon after Zenith formed, master businessman and accountant Hugh Robertson and legendary merchandiser Paul Klugh joined the group, forming the nucleus that eventually propelled Zenith Radio Corporation to a position as a major national manufacturer.

Ralph Mathews built his first amateur radio station (9IK) in Chicago in 1912, soon after becoming interested in amateur radio. While attending Chicago's Lane Technical High School in 1913 and 1914, he perfected an aluminum saw-tooth, rotary spark gap disk which had such a distinctive radio signal that it could be identified instantly by his amateur contacts. Already well known in the amateur community, he began to accept requests from other amateurs to build equipment of his own design for them.

The 9ZN building
Figure 1. The 9ZN building--the first Chicago Radio Laboratory factory in early 1921. Half of the 14' X 18' garage, located on Chicago's lakefront at 5525 Sheridan Road, was used for amateur station 9ZN and the other half was devoted to radio production. The sign on the side of the building reads: "9ZN, Testing & Demonstrating, EQUIPPED WITH CRL APPARATUS."

The receiver at station 9ZN
Figure 2. The receiver used at station 9ZN in 1919 is composed of a CRL Type AGN-2 receiver and an Adams-Morgan Paragon Type RA-6.

Mathews graduated from high school in 1914 and began a commercial operation in 1915 as a means of supplementing his college costs. From 1915 until 1917 when World War I stopped all amateur activity, he covered most of his college and personal expenses by building and selling saw-tooth rotary gaps, radio receivers of various kinds, and other equipment for amateur purposes.

In March 1916, Mathews was appointed trunk line manager for the central region of the U. S. for the newly formed Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL); in February 1917, he was elected to the Board of Directors for the group. About this time his station call letters were changed to 9ZN and with the increased prominence of the station, its operator and his call, his manufactured products became known as "9ZN Spark Gaps" or "9ZN Receivers."

Soon after the war started, Mathews enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the Naval Communications Division, and he met Karl Hassel while stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois.

Karl Hassel was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, on January 25, 1896. He attended Westminster College from 1914 to 1915 and continued his studies in 1916 at the University of Pittsburgh. He had received his amateur license in 1912 and, at Pittsburgh, operated the university's 2 KW, 500-cycle synchronous rotary spark gap station. This very efficient station operated with a special license 8XI, and had an antenna 125 feet high and 600 feet long stretched between two buildings. It operated primarily on 425 meters, and because of its high antenna, was able to work a large geographic area.

With the beginning of World War I, the government closed all and dismantled most radio stations. However, the powerful University of Pittsburgh station was reserved as a government station. Hassel was one of three operators who took and passed the government examination and operated the station on a 24-hour-a-day basis.

There have been several published accounts of Hassel's involvement with the Pittsburgh University station which state that the station became KDKA, the first licensed broadcast station. Indeed, this story is related in several of Hassel's obituary accounts.The Pittsburgh University station was dismantled in 1918 and did not become KDKA. Some of the confusion may have stemmed from the similarity of calls: the Pittsburgh University station was 8XI, while Frank Conrad's call (the station that developed into KDKA) was 8XK.

In early 1918 when the university station was dismantled, Hassel joined the Navy. He became a radio code instructor at Great Lakes Naval Training Station and there met Ralph Mathews. The two worked together at Great Lakes for a few months and then both were transferred to the Naval Intelligence Service offices in Chicago's Commonwealth Edison Building.

When the War ended, they were held briefly before discharge with little to do, and it was during this time they decided to enter into a business partnership manufacturing amateur equipment. In early 1919, after release from the Navy, they formed a formal partnership, and by June 1919, along with friends, M.B. Lowe and Larry Dutton, they were building amateur equipment under the name Chicago Radio Laboratory (CRL).

Hassel and Mathews initially lived in the Mathews family home at 1316 Carmen Avenue, and their first manufacturing location was a table in the kitchen. Operating as the Chicago Radio Laboratory, they produced a catalog in mid-1919. Mathews' father was involved in a printing company and helped them with the catalog. As Hassel said, "...it didn't cost us anything, or we wouldn't have had a catalog. I'm telling you, we didn't have any money."

At first, CRL operated as a retail mail order supplier of amateur equipment, selling a variety of non-CRL apparatus as well as its own. The equipment featured in the first catalog was not stocked but rather manufactured or obtained as it was ordered.

Karl Hassel's account of the earliest days of production were recalled as: "We used Bakelite panel, and they were all engraved by hand with many a resulting blister. We used what we thought was a unique method of mounting the various parts on the Bakelite panel so no mounting screws would show. We used a double panel with the apparatus proper mounted on the back panel, and then the front panel was held on the back one by the pointer stops. I well remember how we used to get a set all put together and then discover we had left offsomething, and so we had to take it all apart again to mount the part on the back panel. Many times we were on the point of discarding this idea and letting all the mounting screws show, but we never did."

Some of Mathews' impressions of the early manufacturing days, recalled in 1978, were:

"As to how many sets we made, I cannot give you a figure. We had 3 workmen, building them by hand. We built them 12 at a time, which took about 2-3 weeks. The total amount, I cannot give you. Then, as the business grew, we started building about 20 at a time.

"Due to our small hand construction, we seldom had much of a stock, but they weren't built specifically to order, unless something special was specified, when [sic.] we would make modifications to order."

In mid-1919, manufacturing operations were moved to one-half of a 14' x 18' 2-car garage erected two blocks north of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, at 5525 Sheridan Road. Mr. Dewey, the manager of the hotel and a friend of both Mathews and Hassel, allowed the free use of the hotel-owned land with the understanding that the building would be removed if the hotel ever needed the property. The other half of the garage was devoted to amateur station 9ZN.

A large antenna was erected, and with the big synchronous rotary spark-gap transmitter, 9ZN was soon heard worldwide. 9ZN was part of the first postwar transcontinental message relay on December 4, 1919 ([1AW to] 9ZN to LF to 6EA). In January [1921], 9ZN was involved in setting the cross country record of 6.5 minutes for a round trip message 1AW to 9ZN to 5ZA to 6JD and return on the same route with help from 9LR. 9ZN was a featured visitation site during the first National ARRL Convention held August 31-September 3, 1921, at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Mathews was the Director General (chairman) of the convention and toastmaster of the banquet.

The 9ZN building
Figure 3. The Chicago Radio Laboratory room. The Engineering Department at the Kedzie Avenue (QRS) plant was led by CRL founder Karl Hassel, shown in the center of the photograph beyond the center table, looking to the left. The radio being tested at the center table is a Zenith 1-R.

By early 1921, the garage on Sheridan Road had became too small and Chicago Radio Laboratory moved to a 3,000-square-foot rented factory at 6433 Ravenswood.

The major product of Chicago Radio Laboratory was a 2-component regenerative receiver. The top portion of the receiver, called the "Amplifigon," housed the detector and the amplifier, and the bottom portion, called the "Paragon," was a tuner. CRL acquired the names Amplifigon and Paragon from the Adams-Morgan Company after it could not receive deliveries as agents for the company. Then, CRL began building and modifying the units themselves.

Karl Hassel could not recall whether the names were purchased or given to CRL. But, in a letter to friend Leo Gibbs on December 6, 1978, Mathew's recalled, "Adams -Morgan and I had the #1 and #2 licenses under Armstrong's patents. We did not copy their set we bought them out at almost the same time, about six months after WW I. The 'Paragon' name was more or less the name of the circuit originally. I believe they were out with their model a few months before ours, and we originally used one of theirs at 9ZN, for a short time, much for comparison purposes. I can't give you a specific date as to the first CRL Paragons and Amplifigons, but it was six months to a year after I got out of the Navy active duty at the end of WWI."

There appears to have been no legal action on behalf of either party. The 1919 Chicago Radio Laboratory catalog specifically states that CRL is selling the Adams-Morgan Paragon. The Paragon name was dropped in the 1920 editions of the CRL catalogs as modifications to the original design produced a new, and exclusively CRL, rendition of the product.

Since its equipment was built for the radio amateur, CRL placed its earliest advertisements in QST, the magazine of the American Radio Relay League the first in June 1919. At the suggestion of an employee, the QST advertisements soon began listing the 9ZN call followed by a small "ith," thus providing the famous trade name Z-Nith.

With the development of CRL's first broadcast receiver, however, the company began placing limited advertising in Chicago newspapers and a few trade publications. Growth, the associated moves to larger quarters, and the arrival of Commander McDonald combined, in retrospect, at precisely the right time to lay a solid foundation for the rapid development of the fledgling company.

By late 1921, the popularity of Chicago Radio Laboratory equipment had driven demand to levels that were impossible to support from the small CRL factory on Ravenswood Avenue. In early 1922, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., who had joined Mathews and Hassel in 1920 as General Manager of CRL, arranged for QRS Music Company at Kedzie Avenue and 48th Street to begin manufacturing CRL products. QRS was to use a combination of its own equipment and employees and those of CRL.

CRL was producing only five radios a week in early 1922; by June 1922, it was producing 50 per week. Since radio sales and manufacturing were cyclical, with the peak period being September to January, a manufacturing output of 50 radios in June would indicate phenomenal growth for the small company.

McDonald formed Zenith Radio Corporation on June 30, 1923, as the marketing arm for the Z-Nith radios produced by Chicago Radio Laboratory. It was not until several years later that the two merged so that both manufacturing and marketing could be carried out by Zenith Radio Corporation. The original patent for the famous Zenith Lightning Bolt was filed on April 24, 1922.

Readers of the book will note that 20 footnotes accompany the above segment of the text an indication of the author's extensive research. In this article, only two of those footnotes have been incorporated into the text.

All photos courtesy of Zenith.

An autographed and numbered copy of Zenith radio: The Early Years, 1919-1935 is available from the authors at $29.95 plus $2 shipping and handling. Send your order to: The Radio Professors, P.O.Box 592, Stillwater, OK 74076. Checks must be in U.S. funds on U.S. bank only, and sorry, no credit cards. The book is also available from A.R.C. and other A.R.C. advertisers. Please check for ordering information.

(John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones, The Radio Professors, P.O. Box 952, Stillwater, OK 74076)

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