Commander Eugene F. McDonald, businessman and explorer, was a man of many interests. Among those was radio, an interest that dated back to 1920 when he noticed a group of people standing in front of a department store window listening to what appeared to be a phonograph. Curious, he inquired and was told the device was something called "radio".
This simple question led the Commander to find out more about this new radio invention, and ultimately to acquire the controlling interest in the nascent Chicago Radio Company, which he built into the mighty Zenith Radio and Television Corporation. It survives today as the Zenith Electronics Corporation (a division of LG Electronics), though its products haven't been manufactured in Chicago for many years.
He was also fond of sailing his yacht, the Mizpah, and of fishing at his lodge in Canada. Business and pleasure came together once when the Commander was unable to find a portable radio that would work reliably on his yachting trips around the Great Lakes, or at his lodge. One of Zenith’s competitors, the Radio Corporation of America, had introduced the first portable radio in 1923, but it wasn’t truly portable in that it required an external antenna. It was left to Zenith to manufacture and market the first true successful portable, the self-contained Zenith Companion, in 1924.
As good as the Companion was, it still didn't meet the Commander's needs. The radio sometimes failed to perform "in the field", and was capable of receiving only the standard broadcast band. The Commander wanted a reliable portable that could tune the marine weather broadcasts and receive European news on shortwave frequencies. Consequently, in August 1939 while on his yacht he sent a memo (via radio, of course) to the Zenith engineering department,
". . . telling them to produce a combination broadcast and shortwave receiver, with split bands to make tuning easy. The little portable I had with me required micrometric fingers to tune."
THE COMMANDER’S IDEA BECOMES REALITY
The Zenith engineers got busy. They began by altering a Zenith Companion, adding shortwave tuning coils and making minor circuit changes. The modified radio worked, but it still wasn’t quite what the Commander had in mind. Over the next few years, the engineers went through nearly twenty prototypes until final pre-production models were ready for the Commander in June 1941.
Commander McDonald took one prototype with him on another of his fishing trips to Canada. Another went with McDonald’s longtime friend, Commander Donald B. MacMillan, who had taken a Zenith Companion on his 1925 Arctic expedition and was eager to try this new model on an upcoming expedition.
Both men found that the prototype models gave excellent performance. In fact, MacMillan reported that his was the first radio that enabled him to keep in touch with the outside world, and that it had not once failed in service. Commander McDonald made some final tests with his model in October 1941, aboard Eastern Airlines flights between Chicago, Washington, and Miami. The radio worked on every occasion. He was at last satisfied and the radio, now called the Trans-Oceanic Clipper, went into production that same month.
There was still some question as to how to add this new portable to the existing Zenith line of radios, but the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 resolved all questions. Suddenly, everyone wanted to get in touch with current events. People rushed to buy radios, and demand for portables rose accordingly. The Commander decided the 1942 Zenith line would lead off with his new portable, with a list price of $75.
The Clipper, model 7G605, was offered for sale, then, in January 1942. The radio was an immediate success and sales were brisk. It could be operated either from batteries or from regular household alternating current (AC) lines with no difference in performance. In just a few months, the Clipper became the standard by which all other portables were judged.
However, the United States was now involved in World War II. By April, over 35,000 radios had been sold, when Zenith (like most other radio manufacturers) was ordered to switch over to war production. There were still 100,000 pending orders for the radio – orders that would go unfulfilled until war's end.
As with the rest of the country, the Trans-Oceanic Clipper went to war. Soldiers who had been fortunate enough to acquire one before the start of the war took their portables along. Zenith received many reports of the Clipper's ruggedness, and its ability to keep playing under extreme conditions, from servicemen all over the world. One soldier even brought his to France during the D-Day invasion, where it continued to play despite the addition of makeshift replacement parts!
AFTER WAR’S END
Zenith promised, in its advertisements, that when production resumed after the end of the war there would be significant improvements in the radio, now called the "Transoceanic". The radio was the Commander's 'baby', and he remained personally involved in its development, production, and marketing. Accordingly, he saw to it that the newest version of the Transoceanic would deliver on the promised improvements.
The new model Transoceanic, series 8G005, was released in 1946. It had been extensively redesigned, both in circuitry and in appearance. The radio was now housed in a stylish black cabinet with brass trim and an improved carrying handle. It featured a flip-top door that, when lifted up and over the main body of the cabinet, revealed the radio’s operating controls and speaker. When closed, the radio resembled a small piece of fine luggage.
Electrically, the 8G005's circuit was similarly redesigned and was what would prove to be the most complex of all models before and after it. It easily outperformed the previous model. The dial was redesigned as well, with all major shortwave bands spread out for easy tuning, and those bands could be selected by pushing the appropriate button. Further, each button was marked with the best reception time of day or night for the particular band. The radio's improved audio section was regarded the best sound of any portable then on the market. Another feature was the Shortwave Magnet – a detachable antenna that could be left in the radio, or under difficult reception conditions, it could be removed and affixed to a window using provided suction cups. For standard broadcast reception, the internal telescoping antenna (the "Waverod") was usually sufficient.
Further changes came in the 1950s with the introduction of the 500 and 600 series Transoceanics. The cabinet style sported minor changes, and the radio was now available in an optional brown leather finish. The dial was redesigned again, replacing the circular scheme with a slide rule type dial. The major change in the 500 and 600 was the introduction of miniature vacuum tubes. These more efficient tubes significantly improved the Transoceanic's performance and reliability, and led to cost savings as well. The 600 series also included a current limiter tube, to smooth out variations in the alternating current power line.
The final vacuum-tube based Transoceanic (and the last tube-based portable radio produced in the United States), model B600, was released in 1959 at a list price of $139. It was available until 1962. The solid state era had arrived, and the Transoceanic would of course change once again.
THE "MODERN" TRANSOCEANIC
The Commander was determined to maintain the Transoceanic’s reputation as the world’s best portable, and he again ordered an extensive redesign of the circuitry and the cabinet. After two years of engineering development, the transistorized Transoceanic was introduced in 1957 as the Royal 1000. This new model featured an all-metal cabinet finished in chrome and black plastic. The flip-top door was retained, as was the Waverod antenna and the detachable Wavemagnet. The dial scheme was new as well, in the form of a cylindrical slide rule situated behind a large plastic window. As the bandswitch was rotated, the desired frequency band appeared in the window.
At a list price of $250, the Royal 1000 was offered for sale until 1962. For an extra $25, consumers could purchase the Royal 1000-D, which featured an extra frequency band for long wave reception of aviation and utility broadcasts. During its five years of existence, the radio went through six chassis changes, keeping pace with the development of transistor circuitry.
The next version of the Transoceanic, the Royal 3000, was released in 1962 (the Royal 2000 was a simple AM/FM portable and not part of the series). The Royal 3000 was not a truly "new" radio in that it was little more than a Royal 1000 chassis with a subchassis added to make FM reception possible. In order to make room for this subchassis, the cabinet was slightly redesigned and the Wavemagnet was removed. Though the radio performed adequately, it was still a hodgepodge that Zenith historians believe Commander McDonald most likely would never have approved – but the Transoceanic’s development was now in other hands, as McDonald had passed away in 1958.
The successor to the Royal 3000 was released in May 1969 as the Royal 7000, and it's thought that the Commander would have been more enthusiastic about this model. There had been problems with the Royal 1000 and 3000 cabinets – pitting and flaking of the metal parts, a fragile carrying handle, and corrosion in the battery compartment. The industrial designers went back to the original guidelines of Transoceanic styling and corrected the problems with a thorough redesign of the cabinet. Chrome and brushed steel were perfectly balanced with black plastic to give the radio a definite 1970s look.
Based on complaints received about the Royal 3000, the circuitry underwent a complete redesign as well. In addition to the standard AM, FM, and shortwave bands usually found on a Transoceanic, the formerly optional long wave band was now standard. Another addition was a single selectable channel for reception of weather reports from the National Weather Service.
Other new features included a Beat Frequency Oscillator for radiotelegraph code and single-sideband reception; voltage regulation; an improved audio section; and a signal meter to aid in tuning. To assist with changing reception conditions, the bandwidth of the receiver could be made wide or narrow, and signal input could be controlled with the new radio frequency gain control. Zenith engineers had again created a radio worthy of the Transoceanic name, one that could serve as a serious communications receiver.
Unfortunately, the Royal 7000 was hampered by a lackluster advertising campaign. It was obvious that the company had spent a great deal of money on research and development of the radio, but it is not so obvious why Zenith failed to promote it. As a result, sales of the radio (which listed for $270) were disappointing at best.
END OF THE LINE
Zenith’s final Transoceanic, model R-7000, appeared in May 1979 and lasted through the 1981 model year. Though it was housed in the same basic cabinet as the Royal 7000, there were changes: the chrome styling was gone, replaced by black, and the controls were smaller. Two larger meters, now prominently displayed at the upper right-hand corner of the dial, replaced the Royal 7000's single signal meter.
The circuitry was also brought up-to-date, using integrated circuits and military-quality printed circuit boards.
The most obvious change, however, was in frequency coverage. Whereas all other Transoceanics covered a limited frequency range on each shortwave band (bandspread tuning), the designers of the R-7000 opted for general shortwave coverage in six bands, thus severing the last link back to the original Clipper. This expanded range required a redesign of the tuning system – gone was the single knob, replaced by a two-knob system of main tuning and fine-tuning controls.
Unfortunately for this model, it was hampered by two major problems. The first was a complete lack of advertising. The Royal 7000 had fallen victim to minimal advertising, but in the case of the R-7000 there was no advertising in the popular media at all. It is unknown today why Zenith chose not to publicize the radio.
The other problem was a design decision. There was competition for the Transoceanic in 1979-81, most of it from various Sony and Grundig portable shortwave radios. These radios featured two desirable amenities the R-7000 did not: a programmable keypad for frequency entry, and light emitting diode displays for the frequency readout, instead of the usual analog dial. Zenith declined to include these features in the R-7000, perhaps due to cost considerations, but it rendered the radio unable to compete with other shortwave portables on the market.
When the R-7000 was discontinued in 1981, it was ultimately the end of the Transoceanic series. Though the engineers at Zenith had started preliminary design work on a new series of Transoceanics (the design was informally referred to as "the R-8000"), Zenith decided to withdraw from the radio business in 1982, and all design work was cancelled. Commander McDonald’s Transoceanic had lasted for forty years.
THE TRANSOCEANIC TODAY
All models of the Transoceanic are popular collectibles today. In fact, it's unusual to find a radio enthusiast who does not have at least one example of the receiver in his or her collection. Like any classic radio, they require some searching to locate, with eBay being the best place to find examples. Transoceanics are not difficult radios to restore (especially the vacuum-tube based models), and there are plenty of resources available. Prospective buyers should ensure that the radio is in relatively good condition, not missing any parts such as the Wavemagnet or the door, and that the collapsible antenna is not bent.
When properly restored, a Transoceanic is not only a fine radio, both in shortwave performance and sound quality, but a good-looking one as well. Even with modern difficult reception conditions, they will give good, reliable performance. It is a tribute to Commander McDonald and his engineers that so many Transoceanics, brought back to their former glory, are working today as well as they did when new.
Bryant, John H. and Cones, Harold N. The Zenith Transoceanic: The Royalty of Radios. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1995.
Peterson, Padgett, "Zenith Trans-Oceanic Page," Padgett’s Home Page. 1996-2004. <http://bellsouthpwp.net/p/a/padgett46/tohome.htm> September 2004.
Peterson, Ted, "Ted’s Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio Information Page". 2002-03. <http://trans-oceanic.fortunecity.net/index.html> September 2004.