Historical Look at the Surveying Merit Badge

The Surveying Merit Badge is one of the oldest merit badges offered by the Boy Scouts of America, having been in existence since 1911. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was incorporated February 8, 1910, by Chicago publisher William Boyce, based in part on the principles of scouting started by general Robert Baden-Powell in England only a few years before.

Surveying Merit Badge 1911-1915

This "teens" surveying badge was the earliest, from approximately 1911 to 1915. These had been square (as below), but a previous owner had cut this one to be round.

Boy Scouts' Ranks and Badges

During its first year the BSA published a temporary edition, the so-called "Original Edition," of its official handbook written by Ernest Thompson Seton. In it were 14 badges of merit that a Boy Scout could earn—Ambulance, Clerk, Cycling, Electrician, Fireman, Gardener, Horseman, Marksmanship, Master- of-Arms, Musician, Pioneering, Seamanship, Signaling, and Stalker. It is believed among most collectors that the BSA neither awarded nor made patches for these original badges of merit.

In 1911, the BSA produced its first permanent edition of the Official Handbook for Boys. This handbook introduced 57 merit badges to the scouting program. Of these original 57, only 27 remain today with no changes to their name. A few others have gone through a name change (i.e. Angling has become Fishing and Firemanship has become Fire Safety), and many have been dropped. Of course, many others have been added and even some of those discontinued over the years. The Surveying Merit Badge is one of the original 57 from 1911 that still survives to this day in a list of now about 120 merit badges.

Surveying Merit Badge 1916-1930s

The type-A square badge was issued from the "teens" through the early 1930s.

Most people are familiar with the progression of rank in Boy Scouting up to the highest award of Eagle Scout. While there have been changes in the requirements for these ranks, they basically have been the same steps a boy would progress throughout his time as a scout. In the early years of the BSA program, merit badges could be earned only by those who were First Class Scouts. This was changed around 1927 so that Second Class Scouts could earn up to five merit badges from a selected set of 30. The Surveying Merit Badge was not included in this set. The five merit badge restriction was lifted in 1952 to allow any Second Class Scout the ability to earn any merit badge; however, certain qualifications still applied to some badges.

Then in 1972, BSA allowed any scout, regardless of rank, the ability to earn any merit badge; however, certain merit badges were required to earn a particular rank. Today, in order to attain Eagle a scout must obtain at least 21 merit badges, including 15 from a required list, in addition to service hours and other requirements. Surveying has never appeared on the required list for Eagle.

Certain principles of surveying, map making, and navigation have always been a part of the Boy Scouts since its founding. Even the "Original Edition" of the handbook had sections on measuring distances and finding latitude using the stars. In the 1911 edition, a test for Second Class was to know the 16 principal points of the compass. Tests for First Class included the following: knowing how to read a map correctly, and drawing from field notes a sketch map identifying landmarks and principal elevations; pointing out compass direction without the help of the compass; and finding the North Star. These are things the scout should have known before he even began to work on merit badges.

Surveying Merit Badge Type E 1940s-1960

The type-E khaki green badge was issued from the late 1940s through about 1960.

Early Surveying Badge Requirements

The section of the 1911 Official Handbook for Boys about merit badges listed only five requirements for the Surveying Merit Badge beyond earning First Class. They were:

  1. Map correctly from the country itself the main features of a half mile of road, with 440 yards each side to a scale of two feet to the mile, and afterwards draw same map from memory.
  2. Be able to measure the height of a tree, telegraph pole, and church steeple, describing method adopted.
  3. Measure width of a river.
  4. Estimate distance apart of two objects a known distance away and unapproachable.
  5. Be able to measure a gradient.

By 1920, the requirements for the Surveying Merit Badge had only one change to them. The requirement to estimate the distance apart of two objects was removed and a new requirement was added: "Understand the use of the plane table." Except for a couple very minor changes, these requirements remained the same until 1960.

During 1911, fewer than 100 merit badges were earned by scouts, and none of those were the Surveying Merit Badge. However, there were 15 surveying badges reported earned in 1912 and about 210 total surveying badges earned in the first five years of the program. After merit badge pamphlets began to become available in the few years before the 1920s, the numbers of merit badges earned greatly increased due in part to the pamphlets having more information about how to complete requirements. The number of surveying badges reported earned in 1916 was 38. This nearly doubled to 72 earned in 1917. Their number climbed significantly each year thereafter to 1,509 earned in 1927.

1920s Scouting Surveying Pamphlet

A Surveying Merit Badge pamphlet from 1920

Surveying Badge Pamphlets

The pamphlets were written by people who were considered experts in each of the topics covered and able to give a more comprehensive and detailed discussion of the subject than would have been practical to include in the handbook. The oldest merit badge pamphlet for surveying that I have in my collection is from the 1920s. Credit for this pamphlet was given to "Prof. George S. Hosmer - Boston, Mass." Some will recognize the name Hosmer as the co-author of surveying textbooks, with Charles Breed, from the early half of the 1900s. It is interesting to note that the Hosmer who wrote textbooks with Breed was "George L. Hosmer," a professor of civil engineering at MIT. I believe that the Boy Scouts erred when they published the pamphlets using a middle initial of "S." Unfortunately, this mistake was carried through every printing of the surveying pamphlet until it was revised in 1960. George L. Hosmer died in the 1930s.

The surveying pamphlets from 1920 through 1941 all contained the exact same information. Hosmer walks the scout through completing the mapping requirement using a pocket compass to take bearings and pacing distances. He uses the relationships of right triangles to show how to determine the distance across a river and estimate heights of objects. He tells how to measure a gradient using a level and rod. And he also discusses using a plane table and principles of triangulation. There is not much discussion on using more sophisticated surveying instruments. He tells the scout to "consult a text-book on Surveying" if he wished to learn the method of using a transit.

The next section of these older pamphlets is titled "Sketching Instruments" as reprinted from "Military Sketching and Map Reading" by Major J. B. Barnes. This section discusses the plane table and sketching case. It tells how to make and use a slope board. There is also information on the box compass.

The third section is titled "Map Making" and is credited to F.E. Matthes, U.S. Geological Survey. This section discuses how to make a good and useful map and provides information on making a closed circuit traverse and acknowledging errors such as the error of closure.

In the fourth section titled "Surveying and Civil Engineering," the pamphlet discusses the various jobs that surveyors and civil engineers may have and gives examples of possible salaries. There is also some information on college and university courses in surveying and engineering.

The last part of these pamphlets gives a short biographical sketch of major general George W. Goethals and his career as the chief engineer of the Panama Canal.

Later Requirements

While the requirements for the merit badge remained basically the same from 1920 to 1960, the text of the pamphlets from 1942 through the 1950s had changed in that the "Surveying and Civil Engineering" section was replaced with a section titled "Level and Transit Jobs" prepared by Science Research Associates for the Boy Scouts of America.

It seems that the authors of this new section of the pamphlet did not have a very favorable view of surveying as a career and tried to push civil engineering as the profession of choice. They linked the surveyor to more of an engineering technician rather than a professional. For example, these are actual quotes from the text:

"Competition has become stiffer. Thousands of better trained workers—the civil engineers—have entered the surveying field."

"To begin with, every civil engineer is a surveyor. But he has two big advantages over the ordinary surveyor: (1) he has learned both the theory and practice of surveying in college, and (2) he is an engineer as well. In other words, the civil engineer who goes after a surveying job will generally be chosen over the ordinary surveyor because he is better trained, has more education and can do many different jobs while the surveyor can do only one."

"Not only does the civil engineer have the jump on the surveyor in the variety of jobs open to him, but also he earns more money."

Salaries and education are again mentioned in this section of the pamphlets. But here too, there is a lower view of the surveyor who "does not need more than a high school education to practice his trade."

About the Author

  • Daniel F. Rittel, PLS
    Daniel is a licensed professional land surveyor in Iowa employed with Engineering Resource Group, Inc. in Des Moines. He is a past president of the Society of Land Surveyors of Iowa, member of the Surveyors Historical Society, and the operator of the Iowa Surveyor website and blog.

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