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 Corp., one of the biggest U.S. radiomakers, McDonald was shocked at the price of hearing aids. If a complete radio receiver sold for only $29, why should a simple amplifier (only part of a radio) cost more than six times as much? McDonald thought he could produce hearing aids as cheaply as radios and make them a profitable sideline.

His first hearing aid, an instrument that plugged into a...

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