JP Stapp 1956 "Murphy's Law," no coining claim

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Nov 6 12:08:12 UTC 2009

In a not-yet-published article I wrote a few years ago about "Murphy's Law", I stated:

"The most significant negative evidence is found in a 1955 book, Men, Rockets and Space Rats by Lloyd Mallan.  This book was a precursor to Tom Wolfe’s test-pilot epic, The Right Stuff, and Mallan talked extensively with Stapp and other aerospace figures of the time.  An entire chapter is devoted to Stapp’s heroic exploits at Edwards, in which the doctor repeatedly risked his life to develop safety improvements that every airplane and automobile passenger benefits from to this day.  Mallan quotes 'Colonel Stapp’s favorite takeoff on sober scientific laws – Murphy’s Law, Stapp calls it – "Everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong."  This is the sole documented pre-1976 link between the Law and any of the Edwards Air Force Base denizens.  But 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 th!
 e 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, and the N-S-M account ultimately looks like a mythology developed in the 1970s in the wake of the exploding fame of Murphy’s Law."

It is no longer true that Mallan is the only pre-1976 link, but the rest of what I wrote is still valid and is confirmed by Stephen's 1956 find.  The negative evidence against the etymythology, which includes many other points as well, is overwhelming.

When Nick T. Spark wrote his seemingly (but not really!) exhaustive book on the origins of "Murphy's Law," he talked with the most famous Edwards Air Force Base denizen, General Chuck Yeager.  I love Yeager's comment:  "“Look, what you’re getting into here is like a Pandora’s Box. … I’m a victim of the same damn thing.  I tell it the way I remember it, and that’s not the way it happened.  I go back and read a report that I did 55 years ago and I say, hmm, I’d better tell that story a little bit different.  Well, that’s human nature.  You tell it the way you believe it and that’s not necessarily the way that it happened.  There’s nothing more true than that."  What a great summary of the etymythology phenomenon!

Fred Shapiro

From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Stephen Goranson [goranson at DUKE.EDU]
Sent: Friday, November 06, 2009 6:49 AM
Subject: JP Stapp 1956 "Murphy's Law," no coining claim

Additional circumstantial evidence of the late and unreliable nature of the
claim that "Murphy's Law" was coined at Murdoc (later Edwards) Air Force Base
in late 1949 comes in New Mexico Magazine, Dec. 1956, p.61, part of "Fastest
Man on Earth" by Steve Lowell, pages 22-23 and 60-61.

Lt. Col. John Paul Stapp is quoted a length, but gives no hint of any claim of
being in on naming the "law."

Page 61:
..."Risk? Any combat pilot has all the unknown risks. For these test rides we
had everything worked out. In 29 rides, I was never shot at!
"Besides, we operated by the first law of missile research--Murphy's Law--if
anything can go wrong, it will! So we were awfully careful.
"And, in those tests, as long as the subject walked away after they were over,
they were successful!"

This is in addition to the negative evidence gathered by Barry Popik, Gerald
Cohen, Fred Shapiro (in Yale Alumni News), David Wilton, and others. And Howard
Percy "Bob" Robertson (as detailed in the list archive) used "Murphy's Law"
earlier than the Murdoc scenario, in any case.

Stephen Goranson

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