Pioneer Alabama amateur radio pivots around the electrical engineering department at what was then called Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) in Auburn. In 1912 API alumnus, Miller Reese Hutchinson, an electrical engineer who served as assistant to Thomas A. Edison, gave a spark gap transmitter and crystal receiver to API. In that same year Congress approved the Radio Act, and universities throughout the nation applied for licenses.
For their station, API students erected a 150-foot steel pipe on the east end of Broun Hall and strung an antenna to the second floor where the set was located. Hutchinson arrived on June 2, 1913, for the dedication, reading the first message transmitted, a note to Edison at his New Jersey laboratory:
“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.”
Auburn's station was licensed 5YA to operate on 1800 meters and was manned by faculty and students. The engineering department developed a course in wireless telegraphy to teach interested amateurs code and radio science. As operators' skills improved and better equipment located, 5YA's range extended and was heard as far away as Indianapolis, Indiana.
During World War I, 5YA, like all non-military radio stations, was dismantled because the government feared spies and saboteurs would use radio waves to the allies' detriment. However, the army issued two portable sets and buzzer devices to API to train approximately 200 men as wireless telegraphers during the war.
Among Auburn's wartime radio instructors was youthful Victor Caryl McIlvaine, a native of Tampa, Florida, who had built a radio set, taught himself code, received both amateur and commercial operator licenses, and worked for the Marconi Company as a ship radio operator in the Gulf of Mexico. API also hired him to teach electrical engineering courses, and McIlvaine, who did not have a degree, took advanced engineering courses.
When the radio ban was lifted in 1919, McIlvaine decided to complete his degree and to build a new station using 5YA's antenna and spare parts from the engineering department and his own equipment. The resulting conglomeration was 5XA, the first experimental station in the 5th radio district.
5XA was located in a small building near the campus's main gate and had a single wire long-wave antennae attached to the water tank behind Wright's Drug Store (Toomer's Corner). Operators continually sought to improve the station's equipment but received no financial aid from the college.
The number of local radio amateurs grew, and these hams were keenly interested in their hobby, managing to keep 5XA almost continuously on the air, including at night. Albert E. Duran remembered that when members sent code that it “made beautiful music and generated a lovely odor of ozone. While someone was sending, you could read the sparks on a power pole at the main gate.”
In 1920 Auburn's first amateur radio organization, the I Tappa Key Club, was established. Meetings were scheduled erratically, depending if members' mothers had sent care packages or McIlvaine's wife Eleanor (her brother Jack M. Dickinson was a ham) had baked cookies for them to enjoy. Electrical engineering professor A. St. C. Dunstan, known to his friends as “Bull,” served as advisor, and his son Arthur–“Little Bull”–joined while still in high school. Club members sent radio-grams free of charge for Auburnites and college personnel.
In the 1920s voice radio was introduced to Auburn, initiating collegial and governmental regulation of programming and possibilities of commercialization, but I Tappa Key Club's station 5XA continued to be operated by an enthusiastic group of amateurs using a myriad of equipment and tapping out messages just for the fun of it.
–Written for the AURC/EAARC Newsletter by Dr. Elizabeth D. Schafer, Loachapka, AL Historian AUARC and EAARC Newsletter