|Founded||1918 in Chicago, Illinois, United States|
|Headquarters||Lincolnshire, Illinois, United States|
|Key people||Michael Ahn, CEO|
|Revenue||US$444.7 million (1999)|
Zenith Electronics LLC is an American brand of consumer electronics owned by South Korean company LG Electronics. The company was previously an American manufacturer of radio and television receivers and other consumer electronics, and was headquartered in 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 and eventually the rest in 1999. Zenith was the inventor of subscription television and the modern remote control, and the first to develop HDTV in North America.
The company was co-founded by Ralph Matthews and Karl Hassel in Chicago, Illinois as Chicago Radio Labs 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 LCDR Eugene F. McDonald, and Zenith Radio Company was formally incorporated in 1923. Zenith introduced the first portable radio in 1924, the first mass-produced AC radio in 1926, and push-button tuning in 1927. 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. The first Zenith television set appeared in 1939, with its first commercial sets in 1948. 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 of 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 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 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.
In the 1980s, Zenith encountered increasing financial difficulty as their market share progressively went to Japanese companies who had lower overhead, and could sell their sets cheaper by dumping their televisions on the American market. In 1979, they entered the home computer market with the purchase of Heath Company and their H-8 computer kit; Zenith renamed Heath's computer division Zenith Data Systems, and eventually sold ZDS and Heath to Groupe Bull in 1989 to raise money for HDTV research efforts. Zenith 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 1990, Zenith was in trouble and looking more attractive to a hostile takeover. To avoid this, Zenith sold 5% of itself to 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 dim. LG was forced to come to the rescue in 1995 by raising 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.
Today, LG produces the Zenith DTT-900  and Zenith DTT-901  ATSC digital television converter box. LG also offers some Zenith branded plasma, LCD, and direct view televisions through selected retail outlets.
Among Zenith's early famous products were the 'Royal' series of transistor radios and the 'Trans-Oceanic' series of shortwave portable radios, which were in production from 1942 to 1981.
Zenith was the first company to experiment with subscription television, launching their Phonevision concept on 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.
While the Theatre Owners of America claimed the concept was a flop, Zenith itself claimed the experiment was a success. 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.
The remote control
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (September 2012)|
Zenith is, perhaps, best known for the first practical wireless television remote control, the Space Command, developed in 1956.
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.
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 photo at the right is 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 feature that sets the remote apart from all the others. That is, 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).
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 phone jack (using a built-in phone cord), and placing a call was performed by pressing a button on the remote to activate the Space Phone (which would mute and take over the program audio going to the speaker). The phone 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 some of Zenith's Chromacolor and later System 3 lines of sets from the late 1970s 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.
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. 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 very hard to find. 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 in tube equipment, in which high temperatures are generated that can break down boards, eventually leading 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 tube equipment. Zenith kept circuit boards out of their televisions until the Chromacolor line in the early 1970s, and even then only used them with solid state components, mounting the four tubes used in the Chromacolor "4 tube hybrid" on the steel chassis. Zenith only moved to circuit boards in their radios when they moved to solid state in the late 1960s, and 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, if any, work to restore them to like-new operating condition.
- McMahon, Morgan E. A Flick of the Switch 1930–1950 (Antiques Electronics Supply, 1990), p.187.
- McMahon, p.187.
- Mahon, p.189.
- "Digital TV Transition". Zenith.com. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
- "Converter Box - Digital TV Tuner Converter Box with Analog Pass-Through". Zenith. June 23, 2008. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
- "Phonevision" Time January 8, 1951
- "Report on Phonevision" Time June 4, 1951
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