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

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sat Sep 20 20:59:52 UTC 2003

I spent a good part of today leafing through the 1950-51 issues of "Aviation
Week" (the zine isn't digitized this far back) looking for references to
Murphy's Law and paying special attention to advertisements. I found
nothing, not even ads based on a similar theme. I could have missed
something, but I don't think so.

I did find a short article on one of Stapp's rocket sled tests in early
1950. There was no mention of anything resembling the famous maxim. This
article could, however, been generated by the same press conference that
gave birth to the maxim.

National coverage by major media of Stapp's tests didn't really begin until
1954 though. This makes me wonder if the 1949 date is not off by a few years
and the infamous press conference was not in fact until 1954. I found the
following quote in a wire service article, "Rocket Sled Ride a Black and Red
Blur," penned by Stapp from 29 Dec 1954--appearing on page 4 of the
Washington Post the next day:

"But I have learned to rely on the engineers and mechanics to take care of
everything foreseeable and to accept the unforeseen and unknown as the
payoff part of the experiement."

This is the closest I've come to a contemporary account of Stapp's tests
that expresses anything even thematically similar to Murphy's Law.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society
> [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
> Of Fred Shapiro
> Sent: Tuesday, September 16, 2003 1:41 PM
> Subject: Murphy's Law, from the Horse's Mouth (?)
> 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
> trace.
> 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
>   Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
> Yale Law School                             forthcoming
> e-mail: fred.shapiro at
> --------------------------------------------------------------
> ------------

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