Last week we had some interesting facts about the history of radio and its development.  Part of that discussion was the development of the Chicago Radio Laboratory which later became the Zenith Radio Corporation.  You may recall that Zenith was one of the first radio manufacturers and became known for  high quality and innovation based upon visions of Karl Hassel, H.G. Mathews and E.A. McDonald

     Last week we briefly mentioned that during the time of World War II, most workers were off fighting the war and there was a shortage of people for manufacturing.   Zenith noticed a pool of hard of hearing workers, but most did not have a hearing device that would allow them to communicate and interact at work. Company President, E.A. McDonald had planned on introducing hearing aids with the Zenith name with a prewar design but had to shelve the idea due to the war effort. In late 1942 and early 1943, Zenith began manufacturing hearing aids, reducing the price of high quality hearing instruments, especially for their workers, it was their only one civilian product manufactured during the War, the rest of their products were going to the War effort.  According to Zenith, introduction of the first “ready to wear” low cost hearing aid was a phenomenal success.  Within months this efficient economical aid was of great help to thousands who could not afford the high prices of other brands.  It was not popular with the rest of the hearing aid manufacturers, however who saw the inexpensive, high quality Zenith device as real competition that would drive consumer costs (and manufacturer’s profits) down.  Among others, both Dictograph Products Company, Inc., the owner of Acousticon, and Sonotone, using Siemens technology,  were concerned about these inexpensive, yet beneficial instruments.

The Controversy:  History Repeats itself

  As hearing aids developed, manufacturers quibbled about who invented various components first patent rights.  Such items as the bone conduction oscillator, microphone and receiver technologies, other circuitry modifications were races by various companies to own patents that made their products more beneficial than others in the market.  While these quibbles were important  business concerns, none was greater than the intention of Zenith to lower the cost of hearing aids in 1942/43.  Bergman (2002) indicates that most hearing aids of the time were being sold for $125-150.  Zenith sold their products in drug stores and jewelry stores for the price-shattering cost of $40 ($50 for the more advanced  or more powerful model).  Since their hearing devices were low cost and high quality, Zenith had many lawsuits relative to patents and infringements over the years. All of which were won to Zenith’s advantage.  Nevertheless, stories were circulated to perspective hearing aid users by the other companies that these products were “thrown together, cheap hearing aids”, or “purely a Zenith publicity stunt”, and that the company would cease manufacturing hearing aids at the end of the war.  Other anti-Zenith ads were that a hearing aid could not be sold “over-the-counter” as it had to be fitted by a professional consultant.  The competitive manufacturers made complaints were made to the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission Better Business Bureau, The American Medical Association and all of these cases were handled with the utmost care and diligence through the 1940s and Zenith won them all.  Other attacks were electronic parts manufacturers were encouraged not to deal with Zenith as suppliers for electronic components but they became their best customers for components and these attacks simply made friends and customers for Zenith hearing aids. 

Does this Over -The-Counter issue sound familiar? 

It is interesting that these cost issues and convenient dispensing over-the-counter are now repeating themselves 60+ years later. Although we know that the Zenith devices and their over the counter sales strategy was very successful, consider that at that time there was a huge backlog of otosclerosis and other conductive hearing losses.  As most audiologist know, these conductive losses can benefit from just about any reliable linear hearing device.  These days the patient population is quite different from that of 60+ years ago. The needs for today’s patients are quite different from those disorders that were the main causes of hearing loss in the 1940s and 1950s.  Today, most of these conductive hearing losses are treated medically or surgically and do not require amplification.  Those that do require amplification are those with sensori-neural hearing losses and their needs are quite different from 60+ years ago.  While Zenith was quite successful with their strategy in the 1940s, good luck to those that choose to sell hearing aids over the counter in the 21st century.





Bergman, M. (2002).  American wartime military audiology.  Monograph:  Audiology Today.  American

     Academy of Audiology, Reston, MD.  Retrieved May 9, 2017.

Zenith (date unknown).  The Zenith Story: A history from 1919.  Retrieved May 9, 2017.

The Golden Age of Radio was a time when radio was the dominant electronic home entertainment device.  


The radio era began with radio broadcasting in the early 1920s and lasted into the 1950s when television became the entertainment medium of choice.  But during this period, radio was the only choice for entertainment.  Families gathered around the radio and tuned in for their favorite programs.  (Click on the Shadow for a sample of early radio programming).  Radio was so popular that a 1938 broadcast of Orson Wells’s “War of the Worlds” by the Mercury Theater totally panicked the United States.  The broadcast was so real to those listening that everyone thought the world had been invaded by aliens!  Radio updated the country each night about WWII and other news with the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Elmer Davis, and a group called the Murrow boys, who literally became a Who’s Who of the 1950s and 1960s television journalism. 

According to early surveys of radio listeners, 82 out of 100 Americans were radio listeners. Statistics also suggested that each radio set had 2.67 listeners of which 1.25 were women, .94 were men and .48 were children. A variety of formats and genres were created for the new medium.  Radio plays, mystery serials, soap operas, quiz shows, talent shows, variety hours, situation comedies, children’s shows, cooking shows. Pretty much the same stuff we see on television these days but they actually began with radio!   As the entertainment historically provided by the radio moved to television, radio was relegated the narrow format of news, talk, sports and music.

At the height of  radio entertainment, there was a brand called the “Royalty of Radio” that offered high level radios for the family, inexpensive sets during the depression and even transoceanic sets used in the Arctic by explorers.  Like many successful companies, Zenith was founded at a kitchen table in Chicago in 1918 by Karl Hassel and Ralph H. G. Mathews.  In 1919, Hassel and Mathews moved their operations into a 14-by-18-foot garage, where they formed the Chicago Radio Laboratory (CRL). They used half of the garage to make hand-engraved radios out of Bakelite such as the one at left and the other half for their amateur radio station, 9ZN.  In 1921, CRL moved into a 3,000-square-foot factory in Chicago. In early 1922, the company was making five radios each week but by June of that year, it was making 50 per week and the business grew from there. Soon they were manufacturing and advertising under the Zenith name.  As a company, Zenith quickly became known as an innovator releasing the first portable radio in 1924, followed two years later by the first radio that operated entirely on household electricity.  Zenith expanded throughout the 1920s. In 1927, the company debuted its now-famous slogan, “The Quality Goes in before the Name Goes On.” The company also helped found the Consumer Electronics Association, and Zenith’s CEO was the first president of the National Association of Broadcasters. 

That same year, Zenith introduced the first radio with push-button tuning, and in 1940 it broadcast the first FM radio station in the Midwest. In fact, Zenith co-invented the FM stereo broadcast system, which was authorized by the FCC in 1961.   With the coming of the Depression, Zenith was forced to change its focus from high-quality radios to more affordable ones. Following the lead of Philco’s Baby Grand, Zenith released its own cathedral radio, the moderately successful Zenette Model L, in 1931. Like many of Zenith’s other radios of that era, the Zenette featured an Art Deco design.  Zenith also produced chairside and table models, many of which had a handle on top to make them even more portable.


During the War years, Zenith manufactured only one civilian product, the Zenith Hearing Aid.  Company President, E.A. McDonald had planned on introducing hearing aids with the Zenith name with a prewar design but had to shelve the idea do to the war effort.  A shortage of manpower during the war for manufacturing existed and Zenith noticed a pool of hard of hearing workers that did not have a hearing device.  They began manufacturing hearing aids in 1943 to reduce the price of high quality hearing aids, especially for their workers.  According to Zenith, introduction of the first “ready to wear” low cost hearing aid was a phenomenal success.  Within months this efficient economical aid was of great help to thousands who could not afford the high prices of other brands.

But it was not all that popular with other manufacturers and that is our story next week!



Zenith Corporation (Unknown).  A history from 1919.  Retrieved May2, 2017.

Zenith (Unknown).  Heritage.  Retrieved May 2, 2017.



The Shadow (2009).  The Shadow knows.  Retrieved May 2, 2017.

British Broadcasting Company (1941).  BBC  Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbour.  Retrieved May 2, 2017.