Origin of "Murphy's Law" Pushed Back to 1911

Shapiro, Fred Fred.Shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sat Dec 1 04:23:01 UTC 2007

Bill Mullins has made a huge contribution to Murphyology by finding multiple examples of sayings very similar to Murphy's Law in magic journals going back to 1913.  In one of his ADS-L postings on this subject, Bill picked up on a reference in one of his citations and suggested that earlier evidence might be found in the books of David Devant.

Indeed this appears to be the case.  I have found a letter to the editor by Wallace R. Rust in _Science News_, Aug. 8, 1992, in which Rust wrote:  "As a magician, I have long been familiar with a passage in the book _Our Magic_  (1911, Nevil Maskelyne and David Devant, E. P. Dutton).  In the chapter entitled 'Presentation,' we read:  'It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that _can_ go wrong _will_ go wrong.  Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting clause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains."  (I have not yet verified this in the original book, but it seems likely to be accurate.)

The only slight respect in which this passage falls short of being the full-fledged Murphy's Law proverb is that it refers to special occasions rather than being a universal truth.  However, this description is actually closer to universality than any of Mullins's magical citations.  Indeed, it is not far-fetched to conjecture that the Maskelyne-Devant usage might even be the origin of the proverbial expression. The fact that Rust was familiar with the passage 81 years later suggests that it was well known among magicians, and the 1927 citaton found by Mullins ("Mr. David Devant once said...") indicates that Devant was to some extent associated with the "law."

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                                         Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research  Yale University Press
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