Murphy’s Law

Although accounts differ as to the precise origin of Murphy’s law and the details about how it was initially formulated, it was certainly named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer.

From 1947 to 1949, a project known as MX981 took place on Muroc Field, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base, for the purpose of testing the human tolerance for g-forces during rapid deceleration. The tests used a rocket sled mounted on a railroad track with a series of hydraulic brakes at the end. The first series of tests used a humanoid crash-test dummy strapped to a seat on the sled, but subsequent tests were performed by John Paul Stapp, at that time a Captain. During the tests, questions were raised about the accuracy of the instrumentation used to measure the g-forces and Edward Murphy proposed using electronic strain gauges attached to the restraining clamps of Stapp’s harness to measure the force exerted on them by his rapid deceleration. Murphy’s assistant wired the harness and a trial was run using a chimpanzee. However, the sensors provided a zero reading, and it became apparent that they had been installed incorrectly, each sensor having been wired backwards. It was at this point that Murphy made his pronouncement.

Here is where any disagreements tend to arise.

According to George Nichols, another engineer present, a frustrated Murphy blamed the failure on his assistant, saying, ‘If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will.’ Nichols’ account is that ‘Murphy’s law’ came about through conversation among the other members of the team. It was condensed to ‘If it can happen, it will happen,’ and named after Murphy for what Nichols perceived as arrogance on Murphy’s part.

Others, including Edward Murphy’s son Robert Murphy, deny Nichols’ account, claiming that the phrase did actually originate with Edward Murphy himself. According to Robert Murphy’s account, his father’s statement was along the lines of ‘If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.’

Be that as it may, the phrase first received public attention during a press conference in which Stapp was asked how it was that nobody had been severely injured during the rocket sled tests. Stapp replied that it was because they took Murphy’s Law under consideration and took every measure to circumvent it.

In most modern technology intended for use by the average consumer, incorrect connections are made difficult. For example, a 3.5 inch floppy disk will not easily fit into the drive unless it is oriented correctly. On the other hand, the older 5.25-inch floppy disk could be inserted in a variety of orientations that might damage the disk or drive. The CD-ROM and DVD technologies permit one incorrect orientation, the disc may be inserted upside-down. A defensive designer knows that if it is possible for the disc to be inserted the wrong way, someone will eventually try it. Fatalists observe that even if it is theoretically not possible to perform something incorrectly, someone will eventually manage it.

Examples of Murphy’s Law

A slice of buttered bread will, when dropped, will always land butter-side down
When plotting a graph, the graph paper is always one square too small for the perfect scale
When caught in a traffic jam, the lane that you are in will always be the slowest to move
Nothing is as easy as it looks.
Everything takes twice as long as it should; excepting that which appears easy, taking three times as long.
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.
If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
If something simply cannot go wrong, it will anyway.
If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.
It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious.
Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.
Every solution breeds new problems.
Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
All small objects of value will disappear when put down.
If you stop and ask someone for directions, and they tell you ‘You can’t miss it’…then guaranteed you will!.

Although we generally now refer to Murphy’s Law, the concept, of course, has been around for centuries. In the UK it was always referred to as Sod’s Law amongst other things.

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