Daily Archives: February 18, 2010

Murphy’s Law

What could possibly go wrong?

There are hundreds of variations on the notion that the universe is somehow out to get us.  “Nothing is as easy as it looks.”  “Everything takes longer than you think.”  “Bread will always fall on the buttered side.”  “A repairman will never have seen a model quite like yours before.”

The list goes on, but the general idea has come to be known as Murphy’s Law, and is usually expressed this way:  Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.  So — who was Murphy, and why is he associated with unhappy outcomes?

The Law’s namesake was Captain Edward A. Murphy, Jr., who was an aerospace engineer.  Following World War II he devised sensors that were supposed to accurately measure gravitational force.  Tests were underway at what is now called Edwards Air Force Base (California) to determine how many Gs the human body could withstand.  An Air Force doctor, Colonel John Paul Stapp, had courageously volunteered to ride the test sled.  In effect, Stapp was a living crash test dummy on a device that was built to decelerate from 200 miles per hour to 0 mph in less than one second.

Every time Stapp rode the test sled he sustained some sort of injury — concussions, broken wrists, ruptured blood vessels in his eyes — all in the interest of improving safety for pilots.  One day in 1949, Col. Stapp was fitted with the sensors Murphy had invented; this test promised to be a big step forward in G-force science.

Stapp was fired down the track and jolted to a violent sudden stop.  His eyeballs eventually settled back into their sockets while Captain Murphy read the results.  The reading was a big fat zero.  Seems there had been an error in the wiring that had caused all the sensors to fail.  There are varying accounts of the immediate aftermath of this discovery, all tactfully omitting what must have been torrents of profanity.  According to most witnesses, Murphy muttered about the lab technician who had wired the strain gage bridges, “If there are two ways to do something and one of those ways will result in disaster, he’ll do it that way.”

At a press conference a day or so later, Col. Stapp made mention of Murphy’s Law, amending it to “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”  After that, Murphy’s Law frequently turned up in aerospace publications, usually as an exhortation to identify and eliminate potential flaws.  It made its way into popular culture, getting a boost from a 1977 book by Arthur Bloch called Murphy’s Law, and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong.

As mentioned at the outset, Murphy’s Law has spawned many variants and corollaries.  One, coined by Australian journalist John Bangsund in the Society of Editors Newsletter, is called “Muphry’s Law”.  It states that “if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

Here’s another one that occurred to me recently:  “If you make a fine product but insist on improving it, expect massive recalls.”  I call that the Toyota Corollary.