Who is Murphy of Murphy’s Law?
Pessimists have existed long before the Murphy whose name today graces this fundamental law. One of the earliest instances of this “law” being stated explicitly happened in 1877 where Alfred Holt is believed to have said in an address to the Institution of Civil Engineers:
It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later…
By 1908, it had become a well-loved maxim among magicians as well, as explained by Nevil Maskelyne in The Magic Circular:
It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion . . . everything that can go wrong will go wrong…
And reiterated by Adam Hull Shirk in The Sphinx in 1928:
It is an established fact that in nine cases out of ten whatever can go wrong in a magical performance will do so.
Later, in 1941 the great pessimist and antiauthoritarian George Orwell wrote in his diaries:
Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Spain, Darlan, Stalin, Raschid Ali, Franco . . . . If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly. One has come to believe in that as if it were a law of nature.[i]
The Eponymous Murphy
In 1949, scientists and engineers at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert in California:
Were performing tests to figure out how many Gs (the force of gravity) human beings could survive. A rocket sled called the Gee Whiz would travel over 200 miles per hour . . . and stop suddenly to simulate a plan crash for its test passenger…
With some opining that the human body could only withstand 18Gs, no people were used during the first 35 test runs:
At first Gee Whiz was tested with a crash test dummy, known as Oscar Eightball. Eightball would suffer a violent ejection that sent him flying 700 feet . . . . These problems were fixed, however, and then they strapped a chimpanzee in the seat.
The original equipment used to measure force was found to be unreliable, so the Air Force called in Captain Edward A. Murphy, Jr., a former pilot and aerospace engineer, to create and oversee the installation of new senors. However, after a trial run with Chim-Chim, the “strain gauges” showed no readings. Upon inspection, Captain Murphy blamed the technicians who installed them, saying:
If there’s any way they can do it wrong, they will.
Eventually, someone fixed the gauges, and a human volunteer, Colonel John Paul Stapp, participated in several runs, ultimately reaching the force of 46.2Gs, shattering the previously thought limit for humans of 18Gs.
According to sources, the combination of the strain gauge test failure and Murphy’s gibe was irresistible to the quick-witted research crew. Although some disagree, the majority identify the brave Colonel as the person who named the aphorism after the unlucky Murphy:
At a press conference Stapp was holding, when asked how such dangerous testing had never caused a fatality, Stapp commented that he and his team always kept Murphy’s law in mind when working, and planned to prevent mistakes.
As a corollary, Stapp had his own aphorism, which stated:
The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.
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Murphy’s Law Applied:
This list of alternative and specialized applications of the fundamental law of pessimism has been blatantly stolen gratefully borrowed from Murphy’s Laws:
- If anything can go wrong it will at the most inopportune time.
- The greater the value of the rug, the greater the probability that the cat will throw up on it.
- If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong (or the one to go wrong first).
- The other line always moves faster.
- The chance of the buttered side of the bread falling face down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.
- In any hierarchy, each individual rises to his own level of incompetence, and then remains there. (Also known as the “Peter Principle”)
- Anything dropped in the bathroom will fall in the toilet.
- After you bought a replacement for something you’ve lost and searched for everywhere, you’ll find the original.
- The best golf shots happen when you are alone (and the worst when playing with someone you want to impress).
- Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
- Traffic is inversely proportional to how late you are, or are going to be.
- A falling object will always land where it can do the most damage.
- The probability of being observed is directly proportional to the stupidity of one’s actions.
- You will always find something in the last place you look.
- Whatever hits the fan will not be evenly distributed.
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