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Wiki Wormhole: Break out the s'mores, sit around the campfire, and read about discontinued merit badges

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With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or reading summaries of the fourth and fifth Game of Thrones book because, come on, they're like 900 pages each and nothing happens. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikpedia's oddities in our 4,318,164-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Discontinued Merit Badges

What it’s about: Despite a long-running controversy about their stance towards gays and atheists participating in the organization, the Boy Scouts remain an American institution, and no symbol of scouting is as iconic as the merit badge. There are one hundred and thirty-three badges currently in use to reward the intrepid scout for skills or knowledge gained. They range from time-honored favorites like hiking and wilderness survival to clearly recent additions like environmental science and game design. (The game design badge has an image of an NES controller sewn into it.) But for various reasons, badges have fallen by the wayside over the years. Some were replaced by newer models, and some simply fell out of favor. Fortunately, Wikipedia is there to make sure they’re not lost to history.


Strangest fact: The Invention badge was only offered from 1911 until 1915. In that time, only ten budding Edisons ever earned the badges, and none of those badges are known to have survived.

Controversy: Plenty. Obviously the Boy Scouts have been no strangers to controversy in recent years, and Wikipedia’s broader BSA category has a subcategory for Issues, which lists 10 different lawsuits, and the broader categories"membership controversies" and "sex abuse."


Thing we were happiest to learn: The merit badge system clearly reflects the times. In the jet-obsessed post-WWII era, Aviation was split into two badges: Aerodynamics and Aeronautics, while Airplane Design and Airplane Structure were added. (All four badges were folded back into Aviation in 1952). 1969 saw Surfing and Waterskiing added to the essential skills every boy should know (they were folded into Water Sports in 2007). Not all of the changes are positive, as Farm And Ranch Management became the far less rugged-sounding Agribusiness in 1987 (and was discontinued in 1995).

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Well, see above for sex abuse and intolerance. But strictly within the realm of badges? That some of the classic scouting activities are no longer badge-worthy. Signaling (semaphore and Morse code) was dropped in 1992, Pathfinding only made it until 1952, and a lot of the foraging-and-farming badges (including Forage Crops, Hog Production, Nut Culture, Dairying, Corn Farming, etc.) were combined into Plant Science and Animal Science in 1975.

Also noteworthy: As History Of Merit Badges tells us, when the BSA was founded in 1910, they began with 14 merit badges, which they never actually awarded. The system was quickly revamped into a list of 57, which are considered the original badges (27 of them are still in use today). 13 of those 14 were renamed in that first year, mostly from an occupation (Marksman, Musician) to a field of study (Marksmanship, Music), although Master-At-Arms was dropped and never revived. The 14th, Stalker (to do with stalking animals but not harming them), lasted until 1915, when it became the only slightly-less-creepy-sounding Stalking, until it was discontinued in 1952. When the badge was reintroduced for a year in 2010 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Scouts, it was wisely renamed Tracking.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Every category of badge comes with a link to Wikipedia’s entry on the subject (or a closely related one). Most are very matter-of-fact: Skiing leads to skiing, Rocks And Minerals leads to Geology, Repiles leads to Herpetology. But Safety First (which was replaced by Safety in 1926) leads to a Wikipedia entry on the general concept of safety, which Wikipedia essentially defines as the condition or quality of being safe.