More on "Murphy's Law"

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Jan 25 16:56:53 UTC 2004

Barry Popik has mentioned that, as the Los Angeles Times Historical has
moved forward in time into the mid-1950s, there is a 1956 "hit" for the
term "Murphy's Law."  At first the citation for the hit appeared without a
link to full text, but now there is a link and I have examined the text.
It is a book review of Lloyd Mallan's 1955 book, _Men, Rockets and Space
Rats_.  I have also looked at the 1955 book itself, and "Murphy's Law"
appears there too.

This is the relevant passage in the book: "Colonel Stapp's favorite
takeoff on sober scientific laws - Murphy's Law, Stapp calls it -
'Everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong.'"

The significance of this passage can be interpreted both as crucial
support for the standard Nichols-Stapp-Murphy story of the origins of
"Murphy's Law" and as crucial evidence against the standard story.

On the one hand, this is, as far as I know, the first discovered pre-1976
documentation linking the Law and any of the Edwards Air Force Base
denizens.  On the other hand, the quote just given is all that Mallan has
to say on the proverb.  Any proponent of the Nichols-Stapp-Murphy origin
has to face the questions: if that story is accurate, wouldn't Mallan's
sources have told him the details of the colorful yarn, and wouldn't
Mallan have thought it was interesting enough to recount in his book?
The answer, I believe, has to be "yes" on both counts.

I have also made a much more significant discovery, but one that I have to
be coy about because I don't want to scoop my quotation dictionary at this
point.  I have previously mentioned a 1941 citation I have found that is a
non-engineering version of the Murphy's Law proverb, although without the
Murphy name being attached.  More recently, I backed off on this, saying
that it is merely a "similar quotation."  This morning, however, I
realized that I made a crucial error in transcribing the 1941 citation.
Looking at that citation without the confusion introduced by my error, I
now see that it is the Murphy's Law proverb.  So the Nichols-Stapp-Murphy
incident is not the origin of the proverb even if it did happen in 1949 as

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at     

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