[Ads-l] A Budget of Murphy's Law

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sun Nov 24 11:02:48 UTC 2019

A Budget of Paradoxes (1872 and later editions) is the title of a book by British mathematician Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871). It collects his columns from The Athenaeum. Here's a partial (selective) review of what Fred Shapiro, Barry Popik, Bill Mullins, I, and others have come up with, with a few new bits added. What could go wrong?

De Morgan on June 23, 1866 (p. 838) wrote: "The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough." As in coin-tossing. This was before several more cynical version statements are recorded (without including a time limit), statements which, yet later, eventually were called Murphy's Law. I suggest De Morgan may have influenced "Murphy." There's probably no consensus about that, and it's not yet sure if there was a real "Murphy." (There are "De Morgan's Laws," but they are a different matter in formal logic.)

The first so-far known recorded statement that included the Murphy's Law name was in early 1949. That's earlier than the scenario proposed by Nick T. Spark and others, one that relies on even later claimed memories.

A bit more on that first text. Psychologist Anne Roe was interviewing Howard Percy "Bob" Robinson, a mathematician and physicist at Cal Tech. She was researching why some people become scientists. Besides questions about his childhood, she used "the thematic apperception test." This elicits comment on a series of captionless images; in this case it was a drawing (and not a photographs nor an ink blots, as some say.) When Roe showed him test item number 10* Robinson mentioned Murphy's Law, naming it twice. After fumbling about he began as if in story-time (my elipses) "...There once was an artist who yearned to be a great architect and to build churches...." He made statues of saints that became covered with dust. "...As for himself he realized that this was the inexorable working of the second law of the thermodynamics which stated Murphy's law 'If anything can go wrong it will.' I always liked Murphy's law, I was told that by an architect...."

Roe published this 1949 text in 1951. But in 1952 (p.46) she wrote that "he introduced me to one of my favorite 'laws,' which he described as 'Murphy's law or the fourth law of thermodynamics" (actually there were only three the last I heard) which states: "if anything can go wrong it will." This raises questions about the accuracy of Roe's 1949 transcript. Second law (on entropy) or Fourth (joke) law? Also, a physicist would be unlikely to add "the" as in "the thermodynamics," though that's a minor point. On the other hand, Robertson reportedly said "Murphy's"--twice, including "I always liked Murphy's law." And I previously reported a Murphy-ish (without the name) text published already in 1945 that has "...the mythical fourth law of thermodynamics which...teaches that anything can happen and usually does."

Robertson's papers (28 boxes of letters, lecture notes, etc.) are in the Cal Tech archive, but are uncatalogued, much less scanned. It may be a fair bet that anyone who bothered to read these might find an earlier reference to Murphy's Law.

Stephen Goranson

*To see the image search in google image "thematic apperception test 10," first hits of two figures, or, e.g.:


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

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