March 27, 2008

"Murphy's Law"

Stupid Question ™
Sept. 21, 2000
By John Ruch
© 2000

Q: In “Murphy’s Law,” who was Murphy?
—Sean Scheiderer

A: “Murphy” was US Air Force Capt. Edward A. Murphy Jr. Or he was a cartoon character. Or maybe he was nobody at all.

Attempts to discover the founder of this famous pessimistic law—usually formulated as, “If anything can go wrong, it will”—seem to activate the law itself.

What’s known for sure is that the term is of US military origin, and the first known use comes from a 1957 San Francisco Chronicle article.

The strongest origin tale comes from the obscure 1977 humor book “Murphy’s Law—And Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!” It partially reprints a letter from NASA employee George E. Nichols.

Nichols wrote that in 1949, he was a Northrop Aircraft employee overseeing rocket-sled crash tests at Edwards Air Force Base. Col. J.P. Stapp was in charge, and also on the team was Capt. Edward A. Murphy Jr., a development engineer from the Wright Field Aircraft Lab.

According to Nichols, Murphy was one day frustrated by a technician’s wiring mistakes and exclaimed, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will.” Nichols claimed to have called the statement “Murphy’s Law.”

Nichols said Stapp soon afterward referred to “Murphy’s Law” in a press conference, and in the next few months the term was used in several aerospace ads.

Murphy did exist—he died in California on July 17, 1990, after a career at North American Airlines. I even found Murphy’s widow, Effie, who said her husband had indeed invented the phrase.

“He was so proud of it,” she said. “He was quite a showoff.”

But Effie also said that Murphy had actually coined the phrase way back in his West Point days.

I could also find no details of Stapp’s press conference, and no aerospace ads that used “Murphy’s Law.”

None of these quibbles would matter much if it weren’t for the fact that there’s an entirely different origin story from an equally authoritative source: ex-astronaut John Glenn.

In a 1962 memoir published in the book “We Seven,” Glenn said Murphy was a clumsy-mechanic character in a series of US Navy educational cartoons.

Again, though, there’s a problem: Nobody’s ever been able to find one of these cartoons.

In any case, the Ed Murphy and cartoon explanations aren’t necessarily contradictory. The cartoons could’ve been inspired by Ed Murphy’s Law. Or Ed Murphy could’ve claimed authorship of an already-existing “law,” possibly one already called “Murphy’s” from the cartoon.

It’s likely that Ed Murphy and George Nichols at least popularized the term, if not coined and named it. But there may never be new details, since both Murphy and Stapp and dead, and Nichols’ whereabouts are unknown.

And the details do matter, since there’s no logical reason why “Murphy” had to be any single person. “Murphy” was a derisive term for Irishmen from the 1890s until at least the 1930s; it’s possible the “law” is simply a Polish joke-type term.

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