They say necessity is the mother of invention. Nothing proves this more than the story of how the iconic Zenith Trans-Oceanic portable radio receiver came into existence.
Commander Eugene McDonald (1886–1958), the founder of Zenith Radio, was a stickler for quality and insisted that any Zenith product represented cutting edge technology and design integrity.
He was also an accomplished yachtsman. During his many ocean voyages, he constantly was frustrated with the inability of any portable commercial radio set to perform reliably at sea. In about 1939, he ordered the Zenith R&D department to come up with a rock-solid, portable AM receiver sensitive enough to pull in signals from great distances. He insisted that the radio be a multi-band unit including shortwave, marine and aircraft bands.
The Zenith crew came up with a gem: the Trans-Oceanic, a gorgeous piece of engineering housed in a robust and dramatic cabinet designed by the brilliant Zenith industrial designer Robert Davol Budlong.
RADIO IN WAR-TIME
The first Trans-Oceanic was placed on the market just as America was entering World War II, and due to war restrictions on the manufacture of civilian goods shortly after its introduction, only about 35,000 of these first units were made.
You can identify the pre-Pearl Harbor version because a sailboat was etched on the grill cloth, later replaced with a bomber after the Japanese attack.
In those wartime days, many Americans were anxious to hear direct reports via shortwave from Europe, especially from the BBC, so it was common to see shortwave bands on many commercial radios of the era. But nothing on the market pulled them in with the clarity and sensitivity of the Trans-Oceanic.
The radio became a godsend to soldiers and sailors stationed in remote areas or at sea. Not only was it sensitive enough to pull in far-off stations (with an extra-wide band spread to isolate co-channel interference) but the thing was bulletproof. Literally. Members of the Armed Forces wrote glowing wartime reports back to Zenith about how their Trans-Oceanic was shot at, caught in an explosion, damaged in a fire, fell overboard or was involved in any number of calamities and kept right on playing.
On the insistence of Commander McDonald, the unit was resistant to humidity, with wax coatings on many critical components. This not only made the Trans-Oceanic a robust unit for sea voyages but was an added advantage in the humid conditions of tropical military outposts.
PEACE AND LEISURE LISTENING
Due in part to the wartime reputation of the Trans-Oceanic, the scarcity of the first units and the pent-up desire for consumer goods after years of rationing, the post-war Trans-Oceanics became the world’s top-selling, high end portable radio receiver for many years. With Americans becoming increasingly mobile and affluent in the 1950s, the Trans-Oceanic was the one unit that could be relied upon to pull in AM stations clearly at distant vacation locations and deep woods camping trips and remained a favorite of the military right up until the final, true Trans-Oceanic was made in 1962, the last tube portable ever manufactured.
On a personal note, I am the proud owner of a Zenith Trans-Oceanic B-600, the final model made in the early 1960s.
After cleaning it up, replacing the dial cord and dial light, I hooked it up to a long-wire antenna in the attic and the radio exploded with an AM dial full of stations from one end to the other. At night, the skip reception was just fantastic, with selectivity that isolated KDKA 1020, WBZ 1030 and WHO 1040 (for example) from each other beautifully.
The shortwave reception was equally as impressive, and I only wish that there was more to listen to on shortwave these days than quasi-religious, right-wing broadcasts.
The tonal quality is superb, with various buttons for voice, music, etc. The result is an audio clarity rare in an AM radio, even today.
Although the Trans-Oceanic name lived on for several years in more modern and compact Zenith transistorized units, nothing has the appeal and romance of those big first-generation Zenith Trans-Oceanics, with their superb engineering, brilliant industrial design, tonal clarity, matchless sensitivity and historical importance.