Murphy's Law, from the Horse's Mouth (?)

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Tue Sep 16 17:41:18 UTC 2003

Several years Barry Popik undertook magnificent research into the origins
of "Murphy's Law."  He travelled around the country, looked at key
sources, and was unable to find any documentation of the "Law" earlier
than 1955.  His research was so extensive that he was able to suggest that
the standard account of the "Law" being coined at Edwards Air Force Base
in 1949 was problematic since the supposed 1949 coinage seemed to have
left no trace in sources where one would have thought there would be a

I have no "smoking gun" to offer proving the standard account.  However, I
have just spent a half hour talking on the phone to George Nichols, the
project manager who, according to the standard account, "developed the
maxim from a remark made by a colleague, Captain E. Murphy" (Concise
Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs).  The salient points of the conversation
are as follows:

1. Nichols, although in his early 80s, was extremely sharp and his
memories seemed to be clear.  Throughout the conversation he stuck to the
standard account in a consistent manner.  Although I am quite impressed by
Barry's evidence (or, rather, nonevidence) and know as well as anyone how
prevalent etymological misconceptions and mistaken memories are, I have to
conclude that Nichols' story is most likely factual.

2. Nichols says that the original formulation was "If it can happen, it
will happen."  This was not what Murphy said, it was what Nichols said
after Murphy made some statement about someone else's error.  Nichols did
not regard "If anything can go wrong, it will" as the original Murphy's
Law.  He says "If it can happen, it will happen" was the version used in
the 1950 press conference.

3. Nichols dismissed any later statements by Edward A. Murphy, Jr. as
attempts by Murphy, three decades later, to assert his own importance as
Murphy's Law became famous in the late 1970s.  According to Nichols,
Murphy played a minor role in the original coinage.

4. I pressed Nichols as to where there might be some contemporaneous
documentation of the press conference or its aftermath.  He said that such
documentation would be in advertisements in technical journals in the
months after the press conference.

That's it.  It seems that the most promising avenue for future research is
in technical journals dated 1950.

P.S.  I have previously posted that I have found a 1941 version of
Murphy's Law, not from an aviation or engineering context.  This is true,
but I want to emphasize that this is a similar quotation, not really part
of the main story of Murphy's Law.

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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