"Murphy's Law," H. P. Robertson, 1949?

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri May 22 11:09:24 UTC 2009

In May 1951 Genetic Psychology Monographs p. 204 Anne Roe reported an
interview with theoretical physicist number 3 that included the words "the
second law of the [sic, her transcription error?] thermodynamics which stated
Murphy's law 'If anything can go wrong it will.' I always liked Murphy's law."
Note the word "thermodynamics," which appears in several earlier versions of
the "law," though, so far, without the name "Murphy's." Also, though
non-specific, "I always liked" suggests that the speaker did not quite recently
learn that law.

Anne Roe donated her papers from interviews with scientists to the American
Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Thanks to APS archivist Earle Spamer, I
can pass along some information. The physicist quoted above was Howard Percy
"Bob" Robertson (27 Jan 1903-26 Aug 1961), whose interesting career is written
up in several places (some online); his biographical interview with Roe is in
the reference above on pages 147-9 (there as #8; Roe intentionally mixed her ID
numbers). The papers are gathered by scientist. His folder does not directly
indicate the date of the interview. In a 16 Dec 1948 letter he agreed to be
interviewed (so, maybe, they didn't wait many months?). On the Rorschach: "age
46." Roe said she spend a year with this group of interviews and "tests"
apparently starting in 1949, and had one day only with each, so all interviews
with HCR were on the same date. Born 27 Jan 1903, so 46 from 27 Jan 1949 to 27
Jan 1950.

Nick Sparks wrote in several publications (latest 2006, with an ambivalent
defense) of the proposed Edwards Air Force Base origin, accounts that vary
considerably. He presents no direct documentation, and Barry Popik, Fred
Shapiro, and others found none. Sparks in e.g. American Aviation Historical
Society Journal 48 (2003) p. 169 tells of a series of rocket sled tests
beginning in June 1949, then a second set of runs. Then "About this time"
Captain Edward A. Murphy arrived.

So, if Robertson spoke before then, it would exclude the proposed Edwards AFB
story. (And a physicist Murphy could be a source, e.g., George Moseley Murphy).
On the other hand, it should be noted that Robertson in 1949 was in CA
at CalTech; and he was a military consultant (American Men of Science 1949:
"Civilian with U.S.A.; A.F."). The Robertson file at the APS does not give the
date. Whether other files might is something that can be determined only by a
visit there (which I do not plan); emailing asking the archivist to do more
would be asking rather too much.

Another potential research opportunity: Robertson's papers, including,
reportedly, lively letters, are in the CalTech archives, in case anyone wishes
to visit there.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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