Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio - February 19th, 2019

That, is the sound of the Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio. Created from 1941 to 1982 these radios were known as the “Royalty of Radios”. If you’re interested, I can tell you that the model we have for sale is listed as lot number 23 in our huge rustic and vintage tool auction. It wouldn’t be much of a podcast though, if we stopped there, so for the love of history let’s travel back to 1918 when amateur operators Ralph Matthews and Karl Hassel created the Zenith Corporation in Chicago. At that time, they produced and sold all kinds of amateur radio equipment and they did so under then name Chicago Radio Labs. In 1921 the boys added someone that would take their radios to the next level, someone known solely as “The Commander”

Eugene F. McDonald was a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy in World War One, and after the war he joined Matthews and Hassel to officially found the Zenith Radio Corporation. He stayed in the Navy Reserve until 1939, and while he was never recalled back into service, he found himself in his free time still at sea, on his yacht. I promise that’s an important part of the story. It took a couple years for them to get their feet going, but by 1926 they had begun mass production of their first AC powered radio. Zenith, through the efforts of McDonald, was a very significant player in the market share of the 1920’s. They didn’t hold the same weight as names like Atwater Kent or RCA, but that all changed in 1936. The factory that produced the Atwater Kent Radios closed, and right around the same time RCA decided to focus a lot of their efforts on the licensing of their patents instead of mass producing radios. The left a Zenith Radio sized hole in the market for the company to become the leading manufacturer of mid-grade to high-end radios.

In the late 1930’s tubes began to develop as an option for portability, and Eugene McDonald came up with the concept of a portable shortwave radio that he could use at sea on his yacht. I told you we would make it back. Even though this was obviously an endeavor that he wanted to take on, to better his own experience he knew that consumers were hungry for portables that could receive international shortwave broadcasts, which now was growing more and more rapidly by the day.

Zenith up to this point had been producing essentially AM-Only radios, but to do what McDonald wanted to do they were going to have to make some changes. They of course knew that they would have to make the chassis and cabinet bigger to fit the necessary components needed. The greatest challenge for Gilbert E. Gustafson, who was the Chief Engineer of the Zenith engineering team, was to design a tuning assembly that had stabile operation, but that could also fit into the newer cabinet. Starting in 1939 there were 20 prototypes that were submitted to McDonald for his approval. 19 times in a row McDonald rejected them one after another, until number 20. This version, had a six-button band selector that the user could use to switch between the AM Broadcast band, and 5 shortwave bands ranging up to 16 megahertz. Part of the reasons these are still so sought after today is because they used some of the highest quality parts to ensure stability in the often-rough environment that McDonald and his portable radio might be operated in. Now that the inside had be created it was time for the outside to be designed which was a task left up to Robert Davol Budlong, who was an industrial designer and graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa. His work had been seen before on Sunbeam Toasters, Shavers, Mixers and all kinds of things that featured a modernistic appearance. His method: To make radios look like radios. Crazy, right? At that time, everything looked like furniture or other objects meant to blend in with their environments. He wanted these to capture your attention, to do the opposite of avert your eyes. He wanted this to shine.

The very first version of these portable shortwave radios was the 7G605, and it was released in October of 1941. It featured a sailboat on the front, a nod to McDonald, and was known as the “Clipper”. For just $75 you could have the very first Trans-Oceanic radio. Zenith had planned to heavily promote the radio for the holiday season, and they were all geared up and ready to go. That is until December 7th, 1941. Most manufacturers had quit production of consumer goods, and focused on producing goods for the War effort. Zenith, however had other plans for their new radio. They changed the image on the front from the sailboat, to a B-17 bomber, and this change was made in such a fervor that some Trans-Oceanic radios are seen to have this grill stuck on top or inserted over the top of the previous sailboat grill. These radios, featuring the likeness of the United States Military were known as “Bombers”.

In April of 1942 the company was forced to discontinue all consumer production by the government decree that was known as the “War Planning Board Federal Edict” which ordered all manufacturing efforts to be directed to the war effort. By then 35,000 sets had been made, and at the time it left around 100,000 orders still unfulfilled. They finished up that line of radios by making around 1000 radios, that had names of dignitaries, CEO’s, War Heroes, & Celebrities silk-screened onto the front of them. These, for obvious reasons, are the most collectible and sought after radios to date.

The war didn’t kill everything for Zenith however, because they began to push the idea of Trans-Oceanics being sold to soldiers not as military radios, but as a doorway for troops to keep in touch with what was happening back in the states. They ran numerous advertisements featuring pictures of the radios being used by soldiers in the field and included stories of the radios surviving through all kinds of nearby blasts and being sprayed with dirt, water, and earth. This was not brought on by the Military until the Korean War years later

Zenith would continue to create, and modify their radios, and seemed to rather enjoy their nickname as the “Royalty of Radios”. In 1959, a year after the man nicknamed the “Commander” had died, Zenith released the Royal 1000, which transgressed in to the Royal 7000 that remained in production until 1982. While many things you’ll hear on shortwave these days is religious, or small-town broadcasts it’s easy to see that this radios tonal quality is incredibly superb, with buttons that can change from voice, to music, and the result is an audio clarity in an AM radio that is rare, even today.