History of Morse Code in the Boy Scouts

Morse code has been in and out of the Boy Scout requirements for nearly a hundred years. During that time, Morse has changed from a career skill to a rewarding hobby, from a vocation to an avocation. Also, radio has grown to include voice communications, data communications, and broadcast.

Morse interpreter strip

I’ve gathered all the requirements I could find: rank, merit badge, or skill award. For context, I’ve included a few historical milestones from amateur radio and from digital and voice communication.

1910: Boy Scouts of America founded.

1912: First amateur radio licenses in the US.

1916: First regular radio broadcasts in the US.

1918: Wireless merit badge introduced, requires Morse at ten words per minute.

1930: Radio merit badge (replacement for Wireless) lowers the requirement to five words per minute.

1937: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive by Semaphore Code, including conventional signs, thirty letters per minute; or by the General Service Code (International Morse), sixteen letters per minute, including conventional signs; or by Indian Sign Language Code, thirty signs per minute; or by the Manual Alphabet for the Deaf, thirteen letters per minute.” [In Morse, this is about three words per minute.]

1947: First amateur radio contacts over SSB at Stanford University.

1965: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive a message of at least 20 words, using either international Morse or semaphore codes and necessary procedure signals.” [No speed requirement]

1965: An amateur radio license is accepted as proof of Morse competence for Radio merit badge.

1967: Viterbi decoder invented, beginning of modern digital communication.

1972: First Class drops Morse requirement.

1979: Morse returns as an option for the Communications Skill Award: “Signal by two of the following methods: silent Scout signals, manual alphabet, sign language for the deaf, Indian sign language, sports signals, Morse code, semaphore code, Scouts trail signs.” [This long list of options requires fourteen pages of documentation in the Handbook. Oddly, the handbook includes the Braille alphabet, though it is not one of the signaling systems listed in the requirement.]

1981: Space Shuttle STS-1 mission uses digital voice communication.

1984: Broadcast and SWL options added to Radio Merit Badge requirements, Morse dropped.

1990: First Class drops Morse requirement (again).

1991: FCC introduces no-code Technician license.

1999: Morse replaced by satellite for global maritime distress calls (no more SOS).

2007: FCC drops Morse requirement for all amateur licenses.

2010: Morse returns for one year in the centennial Signaling merit badge with three requirements around Morse.

2012: BSA adds Morse interpreter strip.

2015: Morse returns yet again as part of the Signs, Signals, and Codes merit badge: “Send or receive a message of six to ten words using Morse code.” [No speed requirement]

There are probably many choices for the beginning of modern digital communication. I chose the invention of the Viterbi decoder, because that supported low-latency error correction in hardware for digital codes. And it is really cool technology.

All the BSA requirements after 1965 are from my bookshelf. The 1937 First Class requirement is from the 1937 Scoutmaster’s Handbook. The remainder are from on-line resources.

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