Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The man who invented "Murphy's Law"

I'm sure many readers are aware of the Annals of Improbable Research, published by the people who award the annual Ig Nobel prizes.  It's often very funny, as well as interesting.  There's also a Web site with much of the same material archived for general interest, plus material that didn't make it into the magazine.

While browsing there yesterday, I came across an article titled 'The Fastest Man on Earth:  Why Everything you Know about Murphy's Law is Wrong'.  It provides links to four parts, and gives the full story of how Murphy's Law came into existence in its commonly accepted form, and acquired its name.  Here's an excerpt from the first part.

This all began a few months ago, after I showed an article I’d written for an aviation history magazine to my neighbor. The article concerned some goings on at Edwards, the famed Air Force flight test facility, in the 1950’s. “You know,” my neighbor said, “You’d probably be real interested in talking to my father, David Hill Sr. He worked at Edwards, on a bunch of rocket sled tests in the 1940’s. In fact,” he continued proudly, “he knew Murphy.”

“Murphy?” I inquired, searching my memory for a test pilot of the same name. Yeager, Crossfield, Armstrong… It didn’t ring a bell.

“You know, Murphy,” he went on. “The guy who invented Murphy’s Law.”

I didn’t say it, but I was absolutely skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? One might as well claim to be friends with Kilroy, know the identity of Deepthroat, or the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart. The notion seemed outright laughable. Your father knew Murphy? Sure he did! If Murphy wasn’t some imaginary Irish folk hero, then he was probably a gentle sage who drank a lot of Guinness and lived back in the 1700’s. Needless to say I let the subject slide.

But a day or two later, I almost tripped over a slender book called Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong that had been left on my doorstep. The book cited Murphy’s Law and then listed literally hundreds of amusing corollaries. The extremely brief foreword to the volume included a letter written by an engineer named George Nichols. And this is where things got interesting. Nichols said he’d worked on a series of rocket sled tests at Edwards in the 1940’s with a Colonel John Paul Stapp and that Murphy’s Law emerged from these tests.

There's more at the link.  Click on the overview for links to all four parts of the article.

I knew there was a real Murphy behind the eponymous law, but I didn't know all the details.  This four-part article provides them, and is a very interesting piece of aviation medicine history to boot.  Recommended reading, as is the one-volume collected edition of all the derivatives of Murphy's law that's referred to in the excerpt above.  I have the three original volumes in my library, and they're a lot of fun.



Murphy's Law said...

Hey, man. Thought this was gonna be about me and Murphy the dog. That other Murphy dude is always getting the spotlight. ;-)

Ray said...

I worked later on with one of the people in the picture at STD Research doing magneto-hydrodynamic research as a technician p/t while I was in college, so I believe the story. Jake was a real character and an amazing mechanic. Jake Superata, he is the 2nd person from the left, middle row. He was with Northrop at the time of the picture.

Anonymous said...

I have that book. It's falling apart because I've thumbed through it so often.


Richard Blaine said...

Not surprising that it's a confused mess, and for the same reasons that eyewitness reports are so unreliable. If you filter everything through our personal experiences, likes and dislikes, and egos, you're unlikely to ever get the actual truth. In the case of Murphy it doesn't really matter. Whether it's 'What ever can go wrong, will' or 'If something can happen, it will happen' or any other variant - it remains a sort of universal truth.

On the subject of -if it can happen it will... I was traveling north on 395 in Reno, Nevada (where I lived for about 5 years) when I was passed by an old mid 60's American car - I think it was a Chevy Impala, maybe a 65 to 69 but honesty I don't remember. What I do remember quite vividly was the bumper sticker on the back - A white rectangle with black letters "SHIT HAPPENS". I read the bumper sticker as the car passed me on the right. Not more than five seconds later, the car's hood snapped open and bent back over the windshield. The driver hit the brakes, and I flew past. I distinctly remember thinking about Murphy Law at that moment.

Grog said...

Murray's Law says Murphy is an optimist.

Richard Tengdin said...

Mother Nature always sides with the hidden flaw, and with a 50-50 chance you will pick the wrong answer 90% of the time.

As Grog said.....

Steffen said...

An excellent read. Thanks for libking it.

Anonymous said...

I can't find the source, but I read that Murphy was a materials engineer at Wright Patterson AFB (originally Wright Field) whose job it was to test materials to their destruction, and that the adage came about in his lab.

Here is another, slightly different version: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_A._Murphy,_Jr.


Evyl Robot Michael said...

Thank you for posting the links. The four-parter was a fantastic read.