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.

4 thoughts on “History of Morse Code in the Boy Scouts

  1. From 1960 (second printing) BSA Handbook: First Class Requirement 6: GET A MESSAGE THROUGH: Morse Signaling – Know the International Morse code, including necessary procedure signals. Using this code, send and receive, by any suitable means, a message of twenty words (one hundred letters) over a distance of at least 100 yards.

    Just a year or two after that, my dad would climb up the hill across the street from our house, and we’d send messages back and forth with flashlights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometime around 1965-66, I passed my First Class using semaphore flags my mother had made for me. I don’t recall ever even thinking about using a flashlight to demonstrate Morse, which I learn at that time. As I approach retirement, I am drawn to Morse code again as I am drawn to learning Non-Latin scripts.

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    • I earned First Class just a few years later. In 1970, I learned Morse at 5 wpm for my Novice license, but haven’t used it since. I’m (re)learning it now and it is one of the hardest things I’ve done in years.

      I’m using the free https://lcwo.net/ online Koch method tool (Learn CW Online). I’m using Farnsworth spacing, with letters sent at 20 wpm dot speed, but spaced apart at 10 wpm (20/10). It would be better to learn at 13 wpm or even 15 wpm, but I tried those and it just wasn’t working.

      I started in January and I’ve only take a few breaks from daily practice. I’m at lesson 30 out of 40. I think it is a lot like practicing a musical instrument, you just need to put in the hours and progress is a lot slower than you’d like.

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