Murphy’s Law: A Chatterbox Investigation

The death of Air Force Capt. John Paul Stapp, who during the 1940s and ‘50s allowed his body to be used in various experiments testing the effects of high-speed transportation, provides an occasion to consider how Murphy’s Law came into being. The New York Times obituary of Stapp, who died Nov. 13 at the ripe age of 89, tells it this way:

Stapp, who was known for his razor-sharp wit, suffered an injury in the experiment that inspired Murphy’s Law, after a … rapid sled ride in 1949.An assistant, Capt. Edward Murphy Jr., had designed a harness to strap the rider in. The harness held 16 sensors to measure the acceleration, or G-force, on different parts of the body. There were exactly two ways each sensor could be installed. Murphy did each one the wrong way.The result was that when Stapp staggered off the rocket sled with bloodshot eyes and bleeding sores, all the sensors registered zero. He had been restrained in vain.A distraught Murphy proclaimed the original version of the famous maxim: “If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way.”

But a 1978 article by Ted Bear, then a flight-center historian at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the experiment in question took place, tells it this way:

[Murphy’s Law] was named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981, [a project] designed to see how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash.One day, after finding that a transducer was wired wrong, he cursed the technician responsible and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Both versions of the story have the same basic theme, which is that it’s always good to be prepared for lots of things going wrong. But in the Times version, Capt. Murphy’s comment seems to be an exercise in evading blame. Rather than saying, “Gosh, I’m sorry,” Capt. Murphy is attributing hisown screw-up to some larger cosmic tendency for all things to get screwed up. It’s the engineering equivalent of the familiar political dodge, “mistakes were made.” By contrast, in Bear’s version, Capt. Murphy is attaching blame to someone else. Murphy is more or less calling the technician said to be responsible (we never get the technician’s version) a schmuck. In Bear’s version, Murphy is not stating any broad philosophical principle of any kind. If this is the real version–for what it’s worth, Capt. Leah M. Bryant told the story the same way in the Sept. 1997 issue of Leading Edge, the house organ of the Air Force Materiel Command–then Murphy’s Law was completely misconstrued. In other words, Murphy’s Law is itself an illustration of Murphy’s Law. (Neither the Times version nor the Bear/Bryant version is particularly flattering to Capt. Murphy.)

To make matters even more confusing, there’s a third version of the story involving an entirely different Murphy–not Capt. Edward Murphy, but Commander (later Admiral) Joseph M. “Murph” Murphy. Chatterbox was unable to obtain details of this story, but “Murph” Murphy is the person to whom Edward H. Heinemann, an aircraft designer and engineer for Douglas Aircraft in the 1940s and ‘50s, attributes Murphy’s Law in his (Heinemann’s) 1980 autobiography, Ed Heinemann: Combat Aircraft Designer. Chatterbox got the poop on “Murph” Murphy from Fred Johnsen, the historian at the Edwards Air Force Flight Test Center. Johnsen told Chatterbox that Heinemann once showed him “Murph” Murphy’s photograph and said, “That’s the guy who invented Murphy’s Law.” Johnsen said that while Heinemann spent a lot of time at Edwards, he has no reason to think that “Murph” Murphy had any connection to Edwards at all.

“There are several reputable people in the aeronautic industry who claim to have known Murphy, and it’s a different Murphy in each case,” Johnsen told Chatterbox regretfully. At least, Chatterbox thinks that’s what Johnsen said …