History of Morse Code in the Boy Scouts

Morse code has been in and out of the Boy Scout requirements for over a hundred years. During that time, Morse has changed from a career skill to a rewarding hobby, from a vocation to an avocation. Also during that time, 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. Morse was a requirement for First Class for 61 years, 1911 to 1972. It returned as an option from 1979 to 1990 during the skill award period of BSA advancement.

For context, I’ve included a few historical milestones from amateur radio, digital communication, and other radio services.

1910: Boy Scouts of America founded.

1911: Second Class requirement 3 is “Elementary signaling: Know the semaphore, or American Morse, or Myer alphabet.” First Class requirement 3 is “Send and receive a message by semaphore, or American Morse, or Myer alphabet, sixteen letters per minute.” [Myer is the same as “wigwag”.]

1911: Signaling merit badge requirement 1 is “Send and receive a message in two of the following systems of signaling: Semaphore, Morse, or Myer, not fewer than twenty-four letters per minute.”

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.

1927: First Class requirement 4 (from Revised Handbook for Boys), “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.]

1930: Radio merit badge (replacement for Wireless) lowers the requirement to five words per minute. Requirement 1 is “Receive and send correctly a straight text at not less than five words (25 letters) per minute.”

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

1948: First Class requirement 6 (from 5th edition handbook) is “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.” [No speed requirement, change from American Morse, requirement is unchanged in 6th edition]

1948: Signaling merit badge requirement 2, “Send and receive in the International Morse code, by buzzer or other sound device, a complete message of not less than thirty-five words, at a rate of not less than thirty-five letters per minute.” Requirement 3, “Demonstrate an ability to send and receive a message in the International Morse code by wigwag and by blinker or other light signaling device at the rate of not less than twenty letters per minute.” [35 cpm is 7 wpm, 20 cpm is 4 wpm]

1965: First Class requirement 4 (from 7th edition handbook) is “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 in 8th edition Boy Scout Handbook.

1979: Morse returns as an option for the Communications Skill Award (9th edition handbook), requirement is “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.

1992: Signaling merit badge discontinued.

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.

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. Earlier requirements are from scanned handbooks checked out from The Internet Archive.