Origin of "Murphy's Law" Pushed Back further, to 1908
Mullins, Bill AMRDEC
Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL
Thu Dec 13 04:44:51 UTC 2007
In my post of last week (below) I speculated that the quote in question might originate in the June 1908 issue of _The Magic Circular_ (the house organ of the venerable British magic society, The Magic Circle), and described my (at that time, unsuccessful) attempts to find a copy. When in doubt, go to the source.
The current editor of _The Magic Circular_ is Matt Field, an email buddy. I wrote him about the ongoing efforts to locate the origin of Murphy's Law, and he generously went to the Magic Circle's library and sent me a copy of the article in question. With Matt's help, I'm pleased to report on the original citation of the Murphy-like quote identified by Fred Shapiro.
Nevil Maskelyne, "The Art In Magic" _The Magic Circular_ Jun 1908, p.25.
"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 <i>can</i> go wrong <i>will</i> go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains."
(I now owe Matt an write up on this line of inquiry for _The Magic Circular_.)
That the quote has been pinned down still leaves several questions unanswered:
1. Why was the sentiment connected with David Devant, when it was written by Nevil Maskelyne?
2. Does it exist elsewhere, prior to this, in the writings of either Devant or Maskelyne? (or anyone else?)
3. Was its reappearance in aerospace circles in the 1950's a case of independent reinvention? Or did it just get a new name?
4. How and why did Murphy's name get attached to it?
From: Mullins, Bill AMRDEC
Sent: Mon 12/3/2007 2:00 PM
To: American Dialect Society
Subject: RE: Re: Origin of "Murphy's Law" Pushed Back to 1911 (UNCLASSIFIED)
Okay, I looked it up. My copy is the 1946 Fleming edition, but the forward says that the only revisions are layout and new artwork -- the text is the same.
The full quote (from p. 69 of this edition -- it is the last paragraph in the chapter) is as Fred copied it (except for italics instead of underlines):
"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 <i>can</i> go wrong <i>will</i> 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."
The oddity, however, is that David Devant didn't write this section of the book -- Nevil Maskelyne did. From the forward:
"Mr. Maskelyne's contribution to this book -- the sections entitled <i> The Art in Magic </i> [in which Chap. 9, Presentation, is included -- Bill] and <i> The Theory of Magic </i> -- had their beginning as a series of articles which he wrote and published in <i> The Magic Circular </i>, the monthly journal of The Magic Circle, a society of British conjurors." The _Magic Circular_ is digitized and online at the Conjuring Arts Research Center, and I cannot find this exact quote appearing earlier. (However, it appears that they are missing the June 1908 issue, and the first half of chap 9 appears in the May 1908 issue, and the first half of chap 10 is in the July 1908 issue. Whatever can go wrong . . . )
"Editorial Notes" [Nevil Maskelyne was the editor for this issue] _The Magic Circular_ Vol.5. No. 52. MARCH, 1911, p. 95-96
"We all know that tricks will go wrong, for that is a perversity not confined to mice and men, but surely seldom is there such a concatenation of contrariness as that of which the story was told in a recent case in the County Court. "
I searched for several of the phrases in the _Our Magic_ quote above, looking for similar earlier statements by Devant or Maskelyne. I was able to find one other usage of "malignity of matter," in the 1894 book _Sharps and Flats_ (a gambling cheating expose) written by John Nevil Maskelyne, father of the Nevil Maskelyne who co-wrote _Our Magic_.
So, the quote is accurate. But it comes from Maskelyne, not Devant. How did it come to be associated with Devant????
Our Magic is a standard text on theory and performance -- it would not be unusual for Wallace Rust or any other conjurer who seriously studies the literature to be familiar with its contents.
Fred -- did the letter in Science News give any further information about Wallace Rust? (home city, for example)
> Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster: "Mullins, Bill AMRDEC" <Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL>
> Subject: Re: Origin of "Murphy's Law" Pushed Back to
> 1911 (UNCLASSIFIED)
> I have a copy of the book, and will try and verify the quote
> tonight. I had flipped through it when I found the
> references some time back, but did not find the quote. With
> specifics, I should be able to identify the quote.
> Bill Mullins
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> > -----------------------
> > Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster: "Shapiro, Fred" <Fred.Shapiro at YALE.EDU>
> > Subject: Origin of "Murphy's Law" Pushed Back to 1911
> > --------------------------------------------------------------
> > -----------------
> > 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
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