Murphy’s Law

"If anything can go wrong, it will.” That is Murphy’s Law. But who was Murphy?

The standard story is that the term was coined in 1949. The Murphy in question is Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer assigned to Colonel J.P. Stapp’s research on the rocket sleds that tested the limits of human endurance to acceleration and deceleration at Muroc Field, California (later renamed Edwards AFB). Murphy was referring to a particular technician, whose name has been lost to history, who had wired a piece of equipment incorrectly when he remarked, “if there is any way to do things wrong, he will.” A few weeks later in a press conference, Stapp allegedly credited his program’s safety record to planning for Murphy’s Law. The rest was history.

Or at least that is what history says happened. There is little doubt that the incident described above actually happened, although no one has been able to find a contemporary quote by Stapp or anyone on his staff that uses the term Murphy’s Law. And the press conference that gave rise to the phrase may have been at a much later date. In a Washington Post article from 29 Dec 1954, Stapp is quoted at a press conference as saying:

But I have learned to rely on the engineers and mechanics to take care of everything foreseeable and to accept the unforeseen and unknown as the payoff part of the experiment.

The first documented use of the term Murphy’s Law is from 1955 in the Aviation Mechanics Bulletin of 11 May:

“Backward" mechanics prove Murphy’s Law.

While that is the origin of the term Murphy’s Law, the actual law is quite a bit older. From “On Getting Out of Things,” by Adam Hull Shirk in The Sphinx of September 1928:

It is an established fact that in nine cases out of ten whatever can go wrong in a magical performance will do so. The great professors of the art are not immune from the malignancy of matter and the eternal cussedness of inanimate objects.

So while the law itself predates the 1949 incident at Muroc Field. Captain Murphy’s contribution to the history of the phrase was the lending of his name. The engineers at Muroc attached Murphy’s name to an already existing adage.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition; ADS-L)

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