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Murphy’s Law Comes from a Real Murphy

“If anything can go wrong, it will.”

That’s one of the most familiar quotes in engineering, science and military affairs. Millions recognize it as Murphy’s Law. But many Americans don’t know that Murphy was a real U. S. airman during the Cold War era.

Today, historians can’t readily separate fact from myth in the origins of this early version of “Stuff happens.”

We know, however, that Capt. Edward A. Murphy (1918-1990) was an Air Force engineering officer. Moreover, Murphy may have caused nothing to go wrong, even though his name is forever linked to the idea that anything can.

Murphy worked with Col. John Paul Stapp, (1910-1999), the Air Force flight surgeon who advanced aviation medicine in the 1940s and 1950s by subjecting a human body – his own – to powerful G-forces and rapid acceleration in high-speed, rocket-propelled sleds.

So dangerous were the tests, Stapp allowed no one else to ride his sled. In one test, he accelerated in five seconds to 632 miles per hour, becoming the fastest human being on the ground. Stapp believed he could exceed the speed of sound (761 miles per hours at sea level) in a future test, but he never did.

As described in a 1978 report in the Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., newspaper, Murphy’s Law was invented in 1949. Murphy’s Law was hardly an original concept: From time immemorial, engineers have cautioned that any endeavor undertaken by humans can go awry.

Strapped onto a seat on a rocket sled that accelerated suddenly along a rail track, Stapp subjected his body to as much as 40 G.

Nick T. Spark described Stapp’s sled in the book A History of Murphy’s Law. “Built out of welded tubes, it was designed to withstand 100 Gs of force with a 50% safety factor,” Spark wrote. Called the “Gee Whiz,” it was 15 feet long and weighed 1,500 pounds. The number of rocket bottles attached to the device determined how fast it accelerated.

The sled was intended to carry a 185-pound dummy called Oscar Eightball. Stapp decided the Air Force could learn more about aviation physiology if the sled carried a person – himself.

Possibly without official permission, Stapp replaced the dummy in many rocket sled tests. Each time, his body was covered with sensors, similar to those used in an electrocardiogram test, to measure his pulse, heartbeat, and other reactions. The high-acceleration human tests demonstrated that a pilot – the word astronaut did not yet exist – could handle sudden G-forces during a rocket blastoff. The tests yielded a wealth of other information for aviation and automobile safety.

In his book, Spark quoted another version of the law: “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”

So dangerous were the tests, Stapp allowed no one else to ride his sled. In one test, he accelerated in five seconds to 632 miles per hour, becoming the fastest human being on the ground. Stapp believed he could exceed the speed of sound (761 miles per hours at sea level) in a future test, but he never did.

Time magazine placed Stapp on the cover of its Sept. 12, 1955 issue and explained Murphy’s Law: There were only two ways the sensors could be affixed to Stapp’s body – the right way and the wrong way – the magazine reported. If the sensors were attached on their flip side, they wouldn’t function. An expensive, dangerous test would produce no useable data.

On one of Stapp’s sled rides, the sensors were affixed incorrectly. Or they almost were. It is unclear which.

Time magazine attributed the mistake to Murphy. Most historians believe, however, that an assistant made the error and that Murphy corrected it in time to save the test. In later years, Stapp, Murphy and several other veterans of the rocket-sled program each claimed to have coined the term “Murphy’s Law.”

In his book, Spark quoted another version of the law: “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...