The next time you turn on a radio around campus, whether you pass 91.1 or not, remember Victor Caryl McIlvaine and Miller Reese Hutchinson.
The university’s first wireless transmitter, you should know, was donated by American genius Miller Reese Hutchinson. He was a Montrose, Ala. native, a graduate of the API class of 1897 and a prominent inventor. He’ll soon receive that highest honor, a brief essay on The War Eagle Reader.
Hutchinson’s gear was connected to a 150-foot steel pipe on the east end of Broun Hall running from a second floor room where the radio set was humming. Hutchinson came down in June of 1913 and sent the first message out of Auburn to his boss in New Jersey, Thomas Edison:
“This wireless formally christens the two-and-a-half kilowatt apparatus which I have this day presented to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in commemoration of the first homecoming of the alumni. The president, the faculty, the alumni, and the student body join me in expressing love and esteem to the father of electrical development.”
Before long people were picking up coded broadcasts with a southern drawl as far away as Indianapolis.
By the time the war in Europe became an American reality McIlvaine, a Florida native, was teaching wireless telegraphy to military personnel at API.
During World War I non-military radio was halted by the government. There was a concern about spies and signal interception. The ether began crackling again in 1919. McIlvaine enrolled at API soon after, continued teaching classes and became a founding member and president of the radio club, I Tappa Key. By then the Department of Commerce granted a license for the local collection of tubes and wires, and the Auburn broadcasters reached out with the name 5XA. Two years later McIlvaine helped build a radio station with the call letters WMAV. By 1926 the calls were changed again to WAPI after the university struck a deal with Alabama Power to land the defunct WSY property.
In 1928 WAPI moved to Birmingham and became a cooperative venture among Auburn, Alabama and the Alabama College for Women in Montevallo, featuring both entertainment broadcasts and programs developed by the extension system at Auburn. NBC radio soon jumped on board, but only after the station moved to Birmingham — the network didn’t think there was an audience in south Alabama. The power was increased to 5,000 watts before the station was privatized in 1932. Later that decade WAPI was set to become one of the most powerful stations in the country, with engineers designing directional arrays that would not interfere with broadcasts out of Los Angeles or Nova Scotia. Alas, that plan was thwarted by World War II.
Radio’s Hidden Voice: The Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States by Hugh Richard Slotten
Slotten rightfully credits James M. Rosene, The History of Radio Broadcasting at Auburn University (1912-1961) (M.A. thesis, Auburn University, 1968), 13-30, Auburn Archives.
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