by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© June, 2017
“As a young salesman, Eugene F. McDonald Jr. hurt his head in an auto accident and became deaf in one ear. When he became the hard-driving boss of Chicago’s Zenith Radio Corporation, one of the biggest US radio-makers of the day, McDonald was shocked at the price of hearing aids.” (1)
He reasoned, “If a complete radio receiver sold for only $29.00, why should a simple amplifier (only part of the radio) cost more than six times as much?” McDonald thought he could “produce hearing aids as cheaply as radios and make them a profitable side line.” (1) And that is exactly what he did.
The Ravox was the first hearing aid the Zenith Radio Corporation made. This 5½ pound, 3-vacuum-tube table-model hearing aid came out in 1939. It was not battery operated, but plugged into a standard wall socket. Thus, it was not portable, but had to be used in one place—wherever you had a source of power. This unit sold for $29.50.
Three years later, in 1942, Zenith came out with its second hearing aid. This hearing aid was a wearable hearing aid—the 2-piece, 2-vacuum-tube Radionic Model A2A. It sold for $40.00. This was at a time where hearing aids typically cost $150-$200. No wonder Zenith hearing aids quickly became one of the most popular hearing aid brands made at the time. In fact, McDonald boasted this second model ”made Zenith the world’s biggest producer of hearing aids”. (1)
Two-piece hearing aids consisted of the hearing aid itself (the first piece) connected to a battery pack (the second piece). Typically the battery pack just consisted of two batteries into which the battery cables plugged.
All vacuum-tube hearing aids required two batteries—a 1½ volt “A” battery and a high-voltage “B” battery. The Zenith Radionic models used 45 volt “B” batteries.
Two years later, in 1944, the Zenith Radionic A2A was followed by the more-powerful 3-vacuum tube Radionic A3A. The price of the A3A climbed to $50.00.
Then in 1947, Zenith came out with their first 1-piece hearing aid. One-piece hearing aids had much smaller batteries—small enough to fit inside the hearing aid case itself. Zenith’s first 1-piece hearing aids was their Model 75. It was a 3-vacuum tube hearing aid and sold for—guess what—$75.00! (Occasionally, hearing aid manufacturers made the price the model number.)
In March, 1948 “McDonald was sure he had finely tuned in on his market. He announced that Zenith’s hearing-aid division had chalked up a handsome profit, though he was mum on the figures (they ‘were too good to say anything about to competitors’].”
The new Zenith Model 75 weighed only 9 ounces. With the arrival of the Model 75, Mr. McDonald bragged of a “new revolution in hearing aids”. Furthermore, by selling it via mail-order, McDonald hoped to tap “a huge market which he considered sadly neglected.” (1)
Between 1948 and 1952, Zenith produced a few more 1-piece vacuum tube models. Then in 1953, Zenith came out with its first all-transistor hearing aid, the Zenith “Royal T”. 1954 saw the introduction of the smaller Zenith “Royal M”, and in 1955, the Zenith 50 X. The price of these latter two models dropped back to $50.00.
Zenith continued their aggressive policy of producing inexpensively-priced hearing aids for a number of years, thus beating out the
competition. The result was that Zenith hearing aids in the 40s and 50s were probably the most common brand of hearing aids sold, and became a household name in hearing aids. Each aid was stamped on the back, “Zenith, “the royalty of hearing”.
They were good hearing aids too. How do I know? My first hearing aid was the Zenith “Royal M”.
(1) Low Tone. In: Time. Monday, March 29, 1948.