This was the least-earned merit badge in BSA history

One look at the requirements, and you’ll see why Invention was the least-earned merit badge in the history of the BSA.

To earn it, Scouts had to “invent and patent some useful article” and “show a working drawing or model of the same.”

Obtaining a patent is a time-consuming, costly endeavor. That explains why just 10 Scouts earned the Invention merit badge in its mere three years of existence. The badge debuted in 1911 and was discontinued on Oct. 1, 1914.

Fortunately for Scouts who are passionate about creating new things, the BSA released the Inventing merit badge in 2010. In this new version, which features a slightly different name, no patent is required.

Today, I thought we’d look back at why the badge was discontinued and what we know about the 10 Scouts who earned it.

One of the Original 57

The Invention merit badge was one of the BSA’s 57 original merit badges, all introduced in 1911. The first 57 spanned a number of subjects, from Agriculture to Taxidermy. Many of these badges, like Archery, First Aid and Swimming, are still offered today.

But the Invention merit badge never seemed to find popularity.

No Scouts earned the badge in 1911 or 1912. One Scout earned it in 1913, eight in 1914 and one more in 1915. That’s 10 total. Ever.

An early demise

While some sites list 1915 as the year Invention merit badge went away, its actual demise happened a year earlier.

In the May 1, 1914, issue of Scouting magazine, leaders were told that the Invention merit badge would be discontinued on Oct. 1, 1914. The decision had been made by the volunteers on the Committee on Badges, Awards and Scout Requirements.

The BSA’s stated reason, in that same issue, was that Invention was leaving to make way for a new merit badge.

Apparently, the BSA wanted to keep the number of available merit badges at 57. So when the Eagle-required Physical Development merit badge debuted in 1914, something else had to go. (Physical Development later became part of the Eagle-required Personal Fitness merit badge offered today.)

So how did one Scout earn Invention in 1915 if it disappeared in 1914? Back then, as today, Scouts who began work on a later-discontinued merit badge could continue working until they finished.

A secondary reason

Adding to this mystery is an article in the October 1916 issue of Boys’ Life magazine, where BL shared a totally different explanation for the badge’s departure.

In a column called “Scouts’ Questions Answered,” a Scout asked: “Why did the merit badge for Invention go out of use?”

BL answered: “Because of the cost. Experience proved that it encouraged boys to invest more than they could afford in equipment which might be of little or no value to them.”

It’s not hard to imagine a Scout asking Mom or Dad for an advance on his allowance to fund his pursuit of a patent. That could get very expensive, very fast.

The mysterious 10

Even the authors of the Inventing merit badge pamphlet, released in 2010, admit that we know little about the 10 people who earned the Invention merit badge.

“While we don’t know the names of the 10 Scouts who earned the first Invention merit badges, nor do we know what they invented, we do know that they were living in a technologically exciting time.”

So we speculate. Did one of these Scouts invent some sort of handy camp gadget? A device for doing homework? A time machine??

In an article for the December 2015 International Scouting Collectors Association Journal, Dave Eby seems to have located the names of some of these Invention merit badge recipients.

One of them, Graeme Thomas Smallwood of Washington, D.C., invented a BSA uniform coat with a removable false sleeve on which Scouts could sew merit badges and rank badges. Scouts wore the sleeve over their regular sleeve to prevent those badges from getting dirty on hikes or campouts.

His patent was filed for and approved — Patent No. 1,162,523, seen below.


Thanks to the BSA’s Travis Rubelee for the post idea. Top photo by Dave Eby.