A blast from the past—in code

Get ready to dot-dot your I’s and dash your T’s.

Today, the Boy Scouts of America released the Morse Code Interpreter Strip, an official patch for Scouts and Scouters who can demonstrate their ability to “speak” this special language.

Morse Code joins languages like Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Sign Language, and several others as interpreter strips available for wear on Scout uniforms (above the right pocket).

To get a typical interpreter strip, you must carry on a five-minute conversation, translate a two-minute speech, write a letter in the language, and translate 200 words from the written word.

But Morse Code, a vital communications tool during World War II, doesn’t really work with those requirements. So Jim Wilson and the BSA team crafted new ones:

Morse Code Interpreter Strip requirements

  • The patch design spells out “M-O-R-S-E”

    Carry on a five-minute conversation in Morse Code at a speed of at least five words per minute.

  • Copy correctly a two-minute message sent in Morse Code at a minimum of five words per minute. Copying means writing the message down as it is received.
  • Send a 25-word written document in Morse Code at a minimum of five words per minute.

How to order

Call BSA Supply toll-free at 800-323-0736 and ask for Supply No. 615120.

Official requirements

Find them here (PDF).

Decode this

In closing, I’ll leave you with my thoughts on this news:

—   ••••   ••   •••   /   ••   •••   /   —•—•   ———   ———   •—•• !

Can you read that?

What do you think?

Will you or one of your Scouts try to earn this interpreter strip? Do you wear any interpreter strips now? Leave a comment below.

65 thoughts on “A blast from the past—in code

  1. i may need this strip. my ancestor is Alfred Vail. He was integral in making morse code work but never received the credit he deserved. Great story many are unaware of. google it!

  2. .. ..-. -.– — ..- . .- .-. -. . -.. – …. . … .. –. -. .- .-.. .. -. –. — . .-. .. – -… .- -.. –. . –..– -.– — ..- … …. — ..- .-.. -.. -… . .- -… .-.. . – — . .- .-. -. – …. .. … .-.-.-

  3. MORSE CODE, or Semaphore Code, or Indian Sign Language, or Manual Alphabet for the Deaf was required in 1948, by Requirement 4, for First Class, when I earned my First Class. I chose MORSE CODE. NESA Life Member Class of 1949.

  4. That is an interesting tidbit on the requirements for First Class in 1948, Carl. Gonna use that tidbit in Communications and ‘Differently Abled’ Awareness merit badges.
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. This release is HUGE for amateur radio; it is like being recognized as a new SuperPower country, with the proof on the uniform

  6. Cool, I will need to dust off the keyer, been 15 years since I passed my 5 WPM Tech Plus Ham license test.

  7. This is great, I too earned first class using Morse Code. NESA Life Member class of 1954. Amateur Call W4RUE.

  8. This is a great idea!! I hope lots of you go for this award, and then get your ham tickets and join us on the amateur bands. Big fun!!

  9. Signaling was still a requirement when I made First Class in 1957/58. Believe I used semaphore flags to pass the requirement.

  10. Very very nice and a great idea to promote amateur radio at that. Practicing Morse Code now at school with a friend. I’m not yet an adult but getting close! KJ6PJH

  11. This is great. Especially to me since I first learned Morse as a Boy Scout – over 50 years ago!! 73 all. -.. . -.- ….- .— ..-.

      • No, it reads correctly. It is just that he didn’t allow white space between – - – when he typed it.

        • You are correct. I should have separated them – it seems a computer wants to run dashes together. By the way, I still remember the first sentence I ever correctly received using Morse: “I LIKE TO EAT DEAD COWS”. (Still do!)

  12. I have no problem if the BSA wants to have an award for Morse code, but I have trouble with it being part of the interpreter strip.

    From the requirements handbook, “Boys and adults may wear this strip if they show their knowledge of a foreign language or the sign language for the hearing impaired by:” Morse code is a foreign language? Yes, it is useful, but is it any more “foreign” than computer languages?

    Additionally, I see this reference on several places on the web, “The purpose of the Interpreter Strip is to serve as an immediate, visual cue to others that a Scout is able to help others by performing as an interpreter, when needed, not to award fluency. In this way, you can “help other people at all times” when you may encounter a foreign language speaker who needs help.” If this is accurate, then the Morse Code Interpreter Strip would be useful if there is someone who speaks only Morse Code and needs help, so that a person with the Morse Code Interpreter Strip could come and save the day.

    I am not opposed to Morse Code recognition by the BSA, but an Interpreter Strip seems teh wrong place to do so.

    • Hi Cindy,
      I do see this as an Interpreter strip in at least 2 circumstances. 1) In which a hearing impaired person who has relied on hearing aids and who does know Morse Code is suddenly faced with a situation in which their primary aid has failed. 2) In the event where by radio communication, the only method of transmission is Morse Code due to either poor radio conditions or the failure of adequate voice modulation electronics. In those circumstances, only someone with Morse Code knowledge would be able to “interpret” what is being communicated.

      There is also one other aspect of Morse Code by which operators use “shortcuts” (similar to today’s cell phone texting lingo) to communicate in shorthand to get more information across with fewer characters. This would also require a bit of interpretation to understand the full message.

      This makes Morse Code similar to sign language in that it is verbal communication substitute but not in the computer language sense. Hope that helps clarify the significance.

      • The scenario of a person who uses hearing aids who finds himself without the hearing aids and knows only Morse Code- not sign language nor has the ability to write since writing would be faster than the five word per minute Morse Code requirement of the interpreter strip- to be so out there that it would never happen.

        The second point: “In the event where by radio communication, the only method of transmission is Morse Code due to either poor radio conditions or the failure of adequate voice modulation electronics.” If there is a situation where Scouts are somewhere and cannot communicate with the outside world except by radio, the radio communication is compromised to only allow Morse Code transmissions, *and* those Scouts just happen to have radio equiptment with them, they could be helped. Not together all that likely this situation would have been helped by a Scout(er) wearing an intrepreter strip. I do not disagree that in this circumstance knowing Morse code could be useful.

        I have no issue with having something to indicate that a person knows Morse Code and that it may be useful in an emmergency. I have Googled looking for any stories of people being saved by Morse Code and I see sailors who report they needed to know it to get their boating license and were galad when tehy were stranded at sea and I did see a story of a woman flashing her headlights in SOS when she was stranded on the highway and police came. There may be more, but that was all I could find. In no circumstance did I find anything in which a person would have looked at a Scout uniform and thought to themselves, “This person knows Morse Code, I need their help so they can help me communicate,” which I think is the purpose of the interperter strip.

        Yes, there are some circumstances that Morse Code have helped people, but I failed to find even one recently where anything other than SOS was used which if important is simple enough to require all Scouts to learn. Even so, if the Scouts wanted to have some recognition of knowledge of Morse Code, treating it as a foreign language seems wrong to me.

        Saying that Morse Code is used as a substitute for verbal communication makes me wonder if we should allow interpreter strips for stenography and shorthand?

        I do not mean to belittle Morse Code and amatuer radio – I just think that this recognition belongs somewhere other than on the interpreter strip.

      • Thanks Cindy!
        Jay.. “1) In which a hearing impaired person who has relied on hearing aids and who does know Morse Code is suddenly faced with a situation in which their primary aid has failed”

        This statement shows how little you know about hearing losses (not hearing impaired). If hearing aids fail, (I speak from experience) there is lip reading, writing or plain ol’ sign language. The average deaf, Deaf or hard of hearing person doesn’t even think to find a Morse Code user. Morse Code is NOT to be associated with Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing. Its like saying give the deaf people a braille menu so they can hear better. (Please know that hearing impaired is politically incorrect terminology.)
        Plus any hearing aid user ALWAYS practices the ‘Be Prepared’ motto by carrying extra batteries on they at all times…*smiles

        Cindy, I can see why they put this new patch in the interpreter strip which was simply to show an awareness of it since it used to be something that was quite common and part of advancement. There isn’t many places we can put things on our uniform. Its nice to bring back the ol’ Morse Code… *smiles

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  15. had a notice about this new development. Here’s what I added to the very positive stream of comments:

    Good job, the requirements are not too hard, but require some regular effort and commitment. If it’s made into a fun group project this achievement should be doable by almost anyone who is serious. Listening (and replying under supervision) to some slow code on the radio is an obvious tie-in. And I bet once scouts get it some can be talked into going on for the ARRL Code Proficiency Certificate as a pretty easy next step.

  16. I also used Morse for first class in 1957. I also got my extra class license in 1990. They required 20 WPM then. Am rusty now but practice seems on the horizon.
    73 DE WA8WHP AR

  17. I would recommend that you don’t teach code to the scouts from dots and dashes in a book. They need to learn by listening to code. Take it from a ham that tried to learn from a book. When you do that you have to translate the sound to a series of dots and dashes and then translate the dots and dashes to a character. They need to learn what the characters sound like.

  18. What a great way to tie in the historic merit badge program of 2010 with today! I had four scouts attempt signaling mb, only two got it!
    Can we bring back carpentry?

  19. As a former finnish boy-scout (yes, thats northern europe :-) ex navy telegraphist
    and active ham-radio operator with a daughter in the right age to join the scouts.
    I want to express that i am very happy about this move, and hope scout
    units of other countries (like mine own) follow suit.

    BTW, telegraphy was a very important means of (commercial) communications until late 1980is. (remember dad sending a “telegram” when the daughter was born?)
    And in the NATO it was still practised (just in case) 1991 and beyond.

    Morse is easy to learn, gets you very far with a low amount of technical effort
    works with light, flags and even smoke from a bonfire… microphones are for wussies!

    best regards from finland
    callsign: oh8xat

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  21. Morse Code gets through when other forms of communications fail. As someone who attempted to pass traffic for Navy/Marine Corps MARS during a hurricane, Morse Code got through while other modes failed. It is great to see BSA recognition return for a skill that gets the job done regardless of circumstances. 73′s, KA4HOC, and ex-NNN0XQQ.

  22. I worked in the Order of the Arrow with our Ordeal Ceremony Team. The boys memorized their parts in English but did the hand motion in the equivalent Indian Sign Language (ISL). Thie worked great. Not only did it help the boys learn their own parts, It got so the boys, after learning their own parts in ISL and seeing the others do their parts became fairly fluent in ISL. During the parts of the Ordeal weekend when talking was not premitted, the boys were able to converse with each other in ISL. This favorably impressed the new candidates.
    Next they wanted an interpreter strip for ISL. They came up with a design and we had some made. We used the test in the back of an ISL book by Tompkins and the pictographs from the same book. The boys who earned the strip were very proud of it.

    • I am concerned that you made up your own interpreter strip aused a non BSA test. If your boys want an interpreter strip, I would suggest that you see if you can get it recognized by the national advancement committee.

      If I have misunderstood and this was not to be put on the uniform and was a “fun” interpreter strip, then I apologize for my misunderstanding.

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