Zenith Electronics

For the unrelated Indian computer manufacturer founded in 1980, see Zenith Computers.
Zenith Electronics LLC
Division of LG Electronics
Industry Consumer electronics
Founded 1918 in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Headquarters Lincolnshire, Illinois, U.S.
Key people
Michael Ahn, CEO
Products Television sets
Revenue Decrease US$444.7 million (1999)
Number of employees
Parent LG Electronics
Website Zenith Electronics

Zenith Electronics LLC is an American brand of consumer electronics owned by South Korean company LG Electronics. It was previously an American company, a manufacturer of radio and television receivers and other consumer electronics, and was headquartered in Glenview, Illinois. After a series of layoffs, the consolidated headquarters moved to Lincolnshire, Illinois. For many years, their famous slogan was "The quality goes in before the name goes on." LG Electronics acquired a controlling share of Zenith in 1995; Zenith became a wholly owned subsidiary in 1999. Zenith was the inventor of subscription television and the modern remote control, and the first to develop High-definition television (HDTV) in North America.[1]

Zenith-branded products are sold in North America, Germany, Thailand (to 1983), Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India and Myanmar.


The company was co-founded by Ralph Matthews and Karl Hassel[2] in Chicago, Illinois as Chicago Radio Labs[3] in 1918 as a small producer of amateur radio equipment. The name "Zenith" came from ZN'th, a contraction of its founders' ham radio call sign, 9ZN. They were joined in 1921 by Eugene F. McDonald,[3] and Zenith Radio Company was formally incorporated in 1923. Zenith introduced the first portable radio in 1924,[3] the first mass-produced AC radio in 1926,[3] and push-button tuning in 1927.[3] It added automobile radios in the 1930s with its Model 460, promoting the fact that it needed no separate generator or battery, selling at US$59.95.[4] The first Zenith television set appeared in 1939, with its first commercial sets sold to the public in 1948.[3] The company is credited with having invented such things as the wireless remote control and FM multiplex stereo. In fact, Zenith established one of the very first FM stations in the country in 1940 (Chicago's WWZR, later called WEFM, named for Zenith executive Eugene F. McDonald), which was among the earliest FM multiplex stereo stations, first broadcasting in stereo in June 1961. The station was sold in the early 1970s and is now WUSN. Zenith also pioneered in the development of high-contrast and flat-face picture tubes, and the multichannel television sound (MTS) stereo system used on analog television broadcasts in the United States and Canada (as opposed to the BBC-developed NICAM digital stereo sound system for analog television broadcasts, used in many places around the world.) Zenith was also one of the first companies to introduce a digital HDTV system implementation, parts of which were included in the ATSC standard starting with the 1993 model Grand Alliance. They were also one of the first American manufacturers to market a home VCR, selling a Sony-built Betamax video recorder starting in 1977.

The 1962 Illinois Manufacturers Directory (50th Anniversary edition) lists Zenith Radio Corporation as having a total of 11,000 employees of which at least 6,460 were employed in seven Chicago plants. The corporate office was in plant number 1 located at 6001 West Dickens Avenue where 2,500 workers made radio and television sets and Hi-Fi stereophonic phonographs. Plant number 2 was located at 1500 North Kostner Ave. where 2,100 employees made government electronics, radio and television components, transistors and hearing aids. Plant number 3 was located at 5801 West Dickens Ave. where 300 employees made electronics and servicing. Plant number 4 was located at 3501 West Potomac Ave. where 60 employees performed warehousing. Plant number 5 located at 6501 West Grand Ave. employed 500-600 workers who made government hi-fi equipment. A subsidiary of Zenith, the Rauland Corporation located at 4245 North Knox Ave. employed 850 workers who made television picture tubes. The other Zenith subsidiary in Chicago was Central Electronics, Incorporated located at 1247 West Belmont Ave. where 100 employees made amateur radio equipment and performed auditory training. The other Central Electronics plant was located at State Route 133 and Grandview in Paris, Illinois where 500 employees made radio receivers, with the total Zenith work force in Illinois being thus at least 6,960.[5]

The last logo used during the U.S.-owned period, outside Zenith's corporate headquarters in Glenview, Illinois, in 1995.

In December, 1970, National Union Electric ("NUE") sued most of the Japanese television manufacturers for violation of the Anti-Dumping Act and a conspiracy which violated American antitrust laws.[6] During the pendency of that suit, Zenith Radio Corporation encountered increasing financial difficulty as their marketing share progressively went to Japanese companies. Concerned about losing market share to Japanese companies, Zenith filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia in 1974 against the major Japanese television and electronic manufacturers charging violation of the United States Antitrust Laws and the Anti-Dumping Act of 1916.[7] Zenith joined two United States companies Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Motorola, Inc. as co-plaintiffs.[8] The NUE suit was transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the two suits were consolidated for pretrial proceedings and trial.[6] The suit, styled In re Japanese Electric Products Antitrust Litigation, sought $900,000,000.00 in damages.[9] By the end of 1983, Zenith had spent millions of dollars in connection with the litigation.[10] In 1981, the trial court entered summary judgment on the antitrust and antidumping claims and dismissed the lawsuits.[11] Plaintiffs appealed and the appellate court affirmed the summary judgment for Sears, Roebuck and Co., Motorola, Inc. and Sony.[12] The case was appealed, and in March 1986 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the defendants on Zenith’s antitrust claims.[13] Zenith's hopes to salvage a victory on the claims that the defendants violated the Antidumping Act of 1916 ended in April 1987 when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Philadelphia which upheld the ruling of the trial court in favor of the Japanese.[14]

In 1979, Zenith entered the computer market with the purchase of Heath Company from Schlumberger for $64.5 million, and formed Zenith Data Systems (ZDS).[15] The company changed its name to Zenith Electronics Corporation in 1984, to reflect its interests in computers and CATV, and since it had left the radio business two years earlier.

By the late 1980s ZDS's profits sustained Zenith while its television business had lost money for years. To raise money for HDTV research efforts and reduce debt, Zenith sold ZDS to Groupe Bull in October 1989 for $635 million.[16] By 1990, Zenith was in trouble and looking more attractive to a hostile takeover. To avoid this, Zenith sold 5% of itself to the Korean company LG Electronics as part of a technology-sharing agreement. With their analog line aging (the last major update to the line had been the System³ chassis in 1978), and the adoption of HDTV in the United States decades away, Zenith's prospects were not good. In 1995 LG increased its stake to 55 percent, enough to assume controlling interest. Zenith filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999, and in exchange for its debts, LG bought the remaining 45 percent of the company. During this era, some of Zenith's products were being rebadged as OEM under the Admiral name. Their profitable Network Systems division—that produced set-top boxes for cable and satellite TV—was sold to Motorola in the summer of 2000 and became part of Motorola BCS (Broadband Communications Sector).[17]

Presently, LG produces the Zenith DTT-900[18] and Zenith DTT-901[19] ATSC digital television converter box. LG also offers some Zenith branded plasma, LCD, and direct view televisions through selected retail outlets.

Famous products

Shortwave radio

A Zenith Model 5-S-220 "cube" radio circa 1937.

Among Zenith's early famous products were the 'Royal' series of transistor radios and the 'Trans-Oceanic' series of shortwave portable radios, which were produced from 1942 to 1981.

Subscription television

Zenith was the first company to experiment with subscription television, launching their Phonevision system with experimental Chicago station KS2XBS (originally broadcasting on Channel 2 before the Federal Communications Commission forced them to relinquish it to WBBM-TV). Their experiment involved a descrambler box mounted on the television set, and plugged into the telephone lead. When a preannounced broadcast was ready to begin, viewers would call an operator at Zenith who would send a signal with the telephone leads to unscramble the video.[20]

While the Theatre Owners of America claimed the concept was unsuccessful, Zenith itself claimed the experiment was a success.[21] As Phonevision broadcast films, it was seen as a potential competitor for traditional theatres. In spite of the fact that the three films initially available to the first 300 test households were more than two years old, about 18 percent of Phonevision viewers had seen them at the movies, and 92 percent of Phonevision households reported that they would prefer to see films at home.[21]

Remote controls

Zenith is, perhaps, best known for the first practical wireless television remote control, the Space Command, developed in 1956.

A Zenith Space Command 600 remote control.
A box advertising a remote control system often referred to as "Space Command Tuning"

The original television remote control was a wired version, released in 1950, that soon attracted complaints about an unsightly length of cable from the viewer's chair to the television receiver. Cmdr. Eugene F. McDonald, Zenith President and founder, ordered his engineers to develop a wireless version, but the use of radio waves was soon discounted due to poor interference rejection inherent in 1950s radio receivers. The 1955 Flash-Matic remote system, invented by Eugene Polley, used a highly directional photo flash tube in the hand held unit that was aimed at sensitive photoreceivers in the four front corners of the television cabinet. However, bright sunlight falling on the television was found to activate the controls. It is worth noting that these remote controls would activate a motor, causing the tuning dial on the television to switch by itself, and this could be used for mischief if someone else was attempting to tune the television.

Lead engineer Robert Adler then suggested that ultrasonic sound be used as a trigger mechanism. This was produced in the hand held unit by mechanically-struck aluminum rods of carefully constructed dimensions—a receiver in the television responded to the different frequencies this action produced. Enough audible noise was produced by pressing the buttons that consumers began calling remote controls "clickers". The miniaturization of electronics meant that, eventually, the sounds were produced in the remote unit electronically; however, the operating principle remained in use until the 1980s, when it was superseded by the infrared light system.

The photograph is of a Space Command 600, and was the remote control designed for use with their color television receivers. The Space Command 600 was introduced in 1965 and this particular design was in use until the end of the 1972 model year. The Space Command 600 remote control had an additional, distinctive feature—this remote control could also adjust color hues. By pressing the mute button on the remote, a relay would be activated at the television in which to transfer the VHF motor drive tuner circuit to the motorized hue control. This would allow the user to adjust the hue in increments by depressing the channel up or down buttons on the remote control, and restore the television to normal tuning operation when the mute button was pressed again (mute off).

Space phone

Some models of Zenith's System 3 line of televisions made from the late 1970s to the early 1990s had a feature called the Space Phone by Zenith. It was basically a hands-free speakerphone built into the television set. It used the set's speaker and remote control, in addition to a built-in microphone. A Space Phone-enabled television would connect to a telephone jack (using a built-in phone cord), and making a call was performed by pressing a button on the remote to activate the Space Phone (which would mute and begin controlling the program audio going to the speaker). The telephone number is dialed using the numeric keys on the remote, which then displays the digits being dialed on-screen (using the on-screen display features of the System 3 line). The user could then converse with another caller hands-free, much like a regular speakerphone.


A feature that was included in Zenith's "Space Command 1000" remote control first used in 1976 in Chromacolor and later System 3 (1978) was the zoom feature. This feature allowed for the image being displayed on the television screen to be zoomed into, by overscanning the raster of the CRT so that the middle of the image would be displayed.

Zenith vacuum tube carton

The porthole television

In the late 1940s, Zenith entered the television market. These sets were all-round tube sets. The main feature was that the entire round screen was exposed. They were available in 12-inch, 16-inch and 19-inch sizes. Later round-tube models had a switch that would show the picture in the 4:3 ratio, or have the entire round screen exposed. These sets are very desirable among television collectors. Many porthole sets used metal-cone CRTs, which are now scarce. It is not uncommon for collectors to replace a bad metal-cone tube with an all-glass tube. Zenith porthole sets came in tabletop models, stand-alone consoles and television/radio/phono combos.

Hand wired chassis

In the late 1950s, many electronic manufacturers, such as RCA, General Electric and Admiral, were changing from hand-wired metal chassis in their radios and televisions to printed circuit boards. While circuit boards save time and errors in assembly, they are not well suited for use with vacuum tube equipment, in which high temperatures are generated that can break down boards, eventually causing the boards to crumble if one attempts to remove a tube. Zenith, and to a lesser extent Motorola, avoided this problem by continuing to use hand wired chassis in all their vacuum tube equipment. Zenith kept circuit boards out of their televisions until the Chromacolor line of the early 1970s, and even then used them only with solid state components, mounting the four tubes used in the Chromacolor "4 tube hybrid" on the steel chassis. Zenith began using circuit boards in radios when they converted to solid-state in the late 1960s, but even Zenith's early transistor radios were completely hand wired with socketed transistors. Due to the use of this chassis construction (and the high quality components), Zenith televisions and radios of the 1950s to 1970s found today are often still working well, needing little work to restore them to like-new operating condition.

See also


  1. "Zenith Heritage". Zenith. Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  2. McMahon, Morgan E. A Flick of the Switch 1930–1950 (Antiques Electronics Supply, 1990), p.187.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 McMahon, p.187.
  4. Mahon, p.189.
  5. 1962 Illinois Manufacturers Directory, Manufacturers' News, Inc., Chicago, IL., copyright 1962, p. 1311
  6. 1 2 Lehr, Jr., Louis A. (2013), Arnstein & Lehr, The First 120 Years, Amazon p. 80
  7. New York Times, September 21, 1974
  8. Washington University Law Review, 58 Wash. U.L.Q. 1055 (1980)
  9. Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1974
  10. Philadelphia Enquirer, December 15, 1983
  11. The New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), March 28, 1981
  12. Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1983
  13. The New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), March 27, 1986
  14. The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, April 28, 1987
  15. "Zenith Radio Buys Heath". Computerworld. 1979-10-15. p. 91. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  16. "Zenith Data Systems Sold to Groupe Bull". U-M Computing News. 4 (18): 18. 13 November 1989.
  17. "Motorola buys Zenith Network Systems". The New York Times. July 2000. Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  18. "Digital TV Transition". Zenith.com. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  19. "Converter Box — Digital TV Tuner Converter Box with Analog Pass-Through". Zenith. June 23, 2008. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  20. "Phonevision" Time January 8, 1951
  21. 1 2 "Report on Phonevision" Time June 4, 1951
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